10 CLOVERFIELD LANE
Most J.J. Abrams films are made in a veil of secrecy. Abrams loves building his films as a trailer tease with sometimes not even what the film is about being kept under wraps. It is the same approach that worked well for many of M. Night Shyamalans early films back when he was being sold as the conceptual twist reversal director. In the case of the original Cloverfield, the title of the film was not even announced until only a few months before release. 10 Cloverfield Lane was made under a similar veil of complete secrecy, being shot under the title Valencia and the world knew nothing about it until the trailer went out in January of 2016, two months before the films release. Even then, the trailer told very little just a domestic scenario (no hint that we were in a bunker), followed by a scene where John Goodman pleads with Mary Elizabeth Winstead not to go outside.
The resulting film telescopes down to a chamber drama one that is set in a survival shelter for 95% of its running time. (It would not be difficult, for instance, to rewrite the entire story as a play). The central drama that fires the film is the question of what has happened in the outside world, of which we are given few details, and whether John Goodmans central character is right in what he says, a paranoid crazy or even worse. This makes the film not dissimilar in its premise to Take Shelter (2011) wherein Michael Shannon was a family man who was certain that the apocalypse was about to happen and wanted to built a shelter, while everyone around him thought he was going crazy. The main difference is that Take Shelter was located above ground and the shelter had not yet been built, while this takes place entirely inside the shelter. Both films though vie between the same ambiguity as to whether the central male character is crazy and whether the disaster is real or not. There are also a number of similarities to Hidden (2015), released some months earlier, about people taking refuge in a fallout shelter where we were unsure what they the threat on the surface they were facing was.
The entire film sits in this place of ambiguity about exactly what happened up above ground, about how crazy John Goodman is and what happened with the girl he claims was his daughter. This it does reasonably well and Dan Trachtenberg, a first-time director, engages us in the drama of Mary Elizabeth Winsteads attempts to escape and the delivery of a number of twists and jolts. In particular, John Goodman, a great actor who has been too quiet in the last few years, gives a real barnstormer of a performance that keeps the show going.
Though 10 Cloverfield Lane has been getting good reviews and it is certainly a better film than Cloverfield, my feeling was that the tension is effective but never truly keeps you on the edge of the seat. A point of comparison might by Xavier Genss The Divide (2011), a brutally harrowing story that had a group of people imprisoned in a cellar after the advent of a nuclear war. That was a film that pushed as far as it could go and scoured the depths of the human condition. By contrast, 10 Cloverfield Lane seems far tamer. Dan Trachtenberg generates a reasonable level of tension but Mary Elizabeth Winsteads feeling of imprisonment, of just how much we feel we should not trust John Goodman never seems to hang on a knife-edge (although there is at least one good shock three-quarters of the way through the film).
And then there is the ending [PLOT SPOILERS]. Many audiences called it a WTF ending but I have seen too many similar things done in recent years. We get alien ships of ill-explained purpose, there is a moderately upbeat finale where Mary Elizabeth Winstead destroys one of the ships and then sets off to join the resistance. A good WTF ending either comes as a jaw-dropping surprise or throws everything that has gone before on its head but this is more one that leaves you with a dissatisfied feeling of wanting to know more about what is going on.
(Nominee for Best Actor (John Goodman) at this sites Best of 2016 Awards).