Stars: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr and Suzanne Cryer.
Writers: Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle.
Director: Dan Trachtenberg.
Twisting a tightly wound, detail-rich narrative into a superbly crafted, white-knuckle chamber piece, 10 Cloverfield Lane defies all genre expectations, including the generalisation that long overdue 'sequels' are inherently inferior to their source material.
Invoking both Hitchcock’s grasp of psychological drama and Spielberg’s genre storytelling precision, producer JJ Abrams and first-time director Dan Trachtenberg don’t so much forge a followup to but rather adopt as a reference point the 2008 found-footage monster movie Cloverfield. But by whatever measure, 10 Cloverfield Lane proves an entirely different and vastly superior vision; if Cloverfield was a product of its time, employing first person shaky-cam when it still felt fresh, Trachtenberg’s taut, slow-burn thriller is a glorious throwback to the days of 'serious' genre cinema.
The first of many decisions that Abrams’ production outfit Bad Robot gets right is the casting of Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Michelle, a young woman fleeing a failing engagement (the fiancé, revealed only via phone messages, is voiced by Bradley Cooper). Following an expertly-staged car crash, Michelle awakens in a bare concrete room, manacled and disoriented; Winstead conveys both the terror of this development while also exhibiting the survival instinct cunning that serves her so well as the plot progresses. After false starts in troubled productions (The Thing; Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter; A Good Day to Die Hard) and great work in little-seen pics (Death Proof; Smashed; Alex of Venice), the wait is over for patient fans that have known her A-list status was inevitable.
The room is part of an extensive bunker constructed by doomsday enthusiast Howard, a troubling, complex personality who purports to have rescued Michelle, both from her wrecked vehicle and some kind of extinction-level event that has made life above-ground impossible. As Howard, the great John Goodman creates one of the most chilling screen personalities in recent memory; having spent the last decade energising support parts in Argo, The Artist, Flight and Inside Llewellyn Davis, the actor gets to dominate a film with subtle, multi-tiered character work. Rounding out the claustrophobic dynamic is the terrific John Gallagher Jr as decent good ol’ boy Emmet, his fully fleshed-out performance elevating what could have been a mere ‘plot device’.
The confines of the underground world are slightly more elaborate than the four-wall environs in Lenny Abrahamson’s Oscar-winner Room, yet the challenge to give the space a dramatic vastness is conquered with a similar mastery of craft. Cinematographer Jeff Cutter and production designer Ramsey Avery work wonders with space, maximising the dramatic and artistic potential of every bare wall, dark corner or glimpse of sunlight. Equally evocative is the film’s rich soundscape, including the pitch-perfect score by Bear McReary. By the time Trachtenberg’s remarkably assured direction draws a clear line between the sequel and its predecessor, all contributors have ensured audience involvement is peaking.
Many purists have refused to bestow the ‘new Spielberg’ tag onto J.J. Abrams, no matter how determined the multi-hyphenate is to wear the moniker. The mini-mogul cites ‘classic Spielberg’ - Jaws, Close Encounters of The Third Kind, Raiders of The Lost Ark, ET The Extra-terrestrial – as the defining creative influence on his career. But for too many, Abrams has mirrored the style yet failed to grasped the essence of Spielberg’s oeuvre; it is the reason a lot of people liked Super 8, his 2011 ode to Spielberg-ian wonder, but no one really loves it.
With 10 Cloverfield Lane, Abrams finally graduates from Spielberg wannabe to Spielberg protégé; it is an evocative reworking of B-movie beats that could have emerged from the darker-hued period that included A.I., War of The Worlds and Minority Report. Abrams and his team have delivered a thrilling tale of human endurance within the science-fiction milieu that would not be out of place amongst the legendary director’s filmography.