Only eight years ago—but well before he took over the cinematic universes of both Star Trek and Star Wars—J.J. Abrams brought us Cloverfield, a found-footage monster movie. While the Matt Reeves-directed project was a stylistic tour de force, the amount of suspension of disbelief required by viewers, even within the confines of the movie, was too much to ask. There was the girl who had a piece of rebar jammed through her shoulder who then acts just fine for the rest of the movie, batteries that never died in the video camera recording the story, girls continuously running in high heels that never came off or were tossed aside, and the fact anybody was willing to keep filming when the smart thing to do would have been to ditch the camera and run like hell.
Flash forward to 2016 and 10 Cloverfield Lane, another J.J. Abrams production that is neither a Cloverfield sequel nor takes place in the Cloverfield universe. (Happily, it also dispenses with the found-footage motif.) Instead, Abrams describes it as a “spiritual successor” to the earlier movie … whatever exactly that means. This time around we have Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who leaves New Orleans in a rush after a fight with her boyfriend, and after a late-night accident, wakes up chained to a wall in an underground bunker with Howard (John Goodman) and Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.). If that’s not bad enough, Howard informs her some sort of massive attack has taken place outside—nuclear? chemical? Russian? alien?—and they’ll be underground for at least a year. Maybe two. But no worries! After all, there are plenty of jigsaw puzzles, John Hughes movies, and a jukebox loaded with the classic hits of Frankie Avalon, Tommy James and the Shondells, and the Exciters.
The first third of the movie is the most effective as Howard tries to explain to Michelle what’s happened in the outside world. In essence, this is a clever reversal of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: Instead of the freed prisoner who escapes from the cave he’s been in his whole life to discover the outside world and then returns to free the other prisoners, in this case we have to take his word it’s better to stay safely trapped in the cave. Michelle does her best to puzzle through this logic problem—along with information from Emmett which may or may not be true—and it raises some interesting questions about reality, truth, and inductive vs. deductive reasoning. However, this plotline is abruptly resolved relatively early in the movie which left me—and perhaps even the filmmakers—wondering what was to happen next as we then get the obligatory musical montage of “getting jigsaw puzzles done.”
The last two thirds of the movie become more and more formulaic: a “trapped with (and escaping from) a perv” sequence is followed by a “hey, it’s an alien invasion after all!” finish. This is when Michelle’s MacGyver instincts, hinted at earlier when she quickly makes a spear out of a crutch and starts a fire to lure Howard into her “fixer upper” cell, kick into high gear as she fashions a working radiation/chemical protection suit out of a shower curtain, plastic bottle, and duct tape. (And she does this, somehow, under Howard’s nose in a bunker which is sometimes claustrophobic and sometimes as expansive as the Evil Dead shack.) Then, after she does make it outside, she manufactures a Molotov cocktail on the fly to deal with some unexpected baddies. Then, sadly, yes, the inevitable sequel is set up.
The increasingly disintegrating plot is mitigated to some degree by the three leads, all of whom are punching above the weight of a weak script. John Goodman is a veteran (and venerable) character actor who always thoroughly inhabits his roles with gusto. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, used to better effect in both Smashed and Alex of Venice, effectively combines doe-eyed shock with steely resolve. And the underutilized John Gallagher Jr. exudes unexpected compassion as Emmett, which shouldn’t be surprising at all his given his performance in the underseen The Heart Machine.
In the end, it’s a shame the filmmakers weren’t willing to trust their audience with a monster/horror story of ideas as they start off with as opposed to ending with a pedestrian alien invasion movie. Then again, this is Drew Trachtenberg’s directorial debut after a career making TV commercials, and there is plenty of promise in the style in which it was shot and put together. But, similar to how Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla—especially as the follow-up to his classic Monsters—was undone by a criminally weak script, we can only hope Trachtenberg’s future projects are worthy of the potential he displays here. Fingers Crossed!