“10 Cloverfield Lane”: Good in Practice, Better in Theory

“10 Cloverfield Lane”: Good in Practice, Better in Theory March 21, 2016

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), captive of Howard (John Goodman), in "10 Cloverfield Lane"
Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), captive of Howard (John Goodman), in “10 Cloverfield Lane”

Its idea is much more exciting on paper than in reality.

The notion of a series of tenuously connected films about a monster invasion sounds like a lot of fun.  But, so far, the two films in the Cloverfield series have been modestly entertaining but hardly riveting.  Spiritual godfather/producer J.J. Abrams may be hoping for audience allegiance on the level of Star Trek or Star Wars, but the material ain’t even close to being so worthy.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to enjoy about both Cloverfield films.  The original found footage movie nicely showed us a gaggle of twentysomethings responding to a monster attack on Manhattan.  (And the creatures giant and small were satisfyingly intimidating and loathsome.)

However, like its sorta-kinda predecessor, 10 Cloverfield Lane stints on character development.  The critters may find plenty to sink their teeth into; the audience, not so much.

10 Cloverfield Lane eschews the original’s found footage trope and follows a more traditional suspense movie route.  The new film opens with its lead character Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) impulsively fleeing Lake Charles, Louisiana.  The reason in her case isn’t an alien attack – she ignores a ground tremor like the one that signaled the creatures’ arrival in Cloverfield – but an upsetting argument with her fiancé.

As she hits rural roads, Michelle ignores a phone call from her beau (the disembodied voice of Bradley Cooper).  Moments later, she’s rammed by another vehicle and jolted into unconsciousness.

When Michelle comes to, she’s in a survivalist’s basement, with an IV in one arm and handcuffs shackling her other wrist to the wall.  Understandably thinking she’s captive to some psychopath, Michelle attempts to escape.  Only eventually is she subdued and semi-persuaded by the survivalist Howard (John Goodman) that he’s actually protecting her from some sort of invasion that’s occurred aboveground.  Whether it’s Martians or “Russkies,” he’s unsure, but he is certain that some form of deadly danger lurks outdoors.

Michelle becomes more accepting of her cramped quarters as she gets to know the shelter’s other resident, Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.).  This kind if somewhat simple-minded neighbor of Howard’s claims to have witnessed the bright flare of a probable nuclear blast.

Michelle and Emmett befriend each other, but the peace belowground is a fragile one.  Howard may have thought of everything to enable years of self-sufficiency, even hanging soothing pictures on the wall and stockpiling a fair selection of board games and jigsaw puzzles to while away the days.  However, he’s irritable and controlling, blowing his stack on the slightest pretext.

Emmett and Michelle, wary of Howard's schemes, in "!0 Cloverfield Lane"
Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) and Michelle, wary of Howard’s schemes, in “10 Cloverfield Lane”

The tension only escalates when doubts creep in again about Howard’s intentions and sanity.  Together, Michelle and Emmett begin planning an expedition to the surface.  But will their plans evade Howard’s vigilance?

First-time feature director Dan Trachtenberg and his scriptwriters are skilled tantalizers, dropping clues that heighten our uncertainty about what is real versus what exists only in Howard’s deluded imagination.  In ratcheting up viewer anxiety, they’re aided by prolific television composer Bear McCreary (once you’ve heard his Walking Dead theme, can you ever forget it?).  McCreary competently juggles high-pitched strings that elicit Hitchcockian dread, with tinkling bells that evoke Spielbergian wonder.

Unfortunately, 10 Cloverfield Lane’s characters possess one or two defining traits rather than fully fleshed personalities.  Michelle is a resourceful woman whose default reaction is to run when she’s stressed, whether it’s from an argument with her fiancé or from a possibly deranged rescuer/captor.  Emmett is a good-hearted handyman who regrets never wandering more than 40 miles from home.

Both Winstead and Gallagher strike me as good actors stuck in their constricting roles of Michelle and Emmett.  But John Goodman indisputably possesses a higher level of thespian talent, whether playing the iconic Walter Sobchak of The Big Lebowski, or the depressed husband and father Creighton Bernette in the post-Katrina New Orleans masterpiece Treme.  His gifts are barely tapped with his two-dimensional character here.

 The dialogue, too, is adequate but far from scintillating.  There are a couple of memorable lines, as when Emmett refers to Howard’s possession of “a black belt in conspiracy theory,” but the script rarely rises above serviceable.  This is especially surprising, considering one of the screenplay writers is Damien Chazelle, the genius behind 2014’s aptly titled and unforgettable Whiplash.

 It is these underdeveloped characters paired with an anemic script that make 10 Cloverfield Lane good but not great.  So, while I’m curious to see what happens next with this franchise, I won’t be breathlessly scanning Variety for the latest updates on Cloverfield Number 3.

3 out of 5 stars

 (Parents’ guide:  10 Cloverfield Lane is rated PG-13.  Like the best suspense films, most but not all of its violence is implied rather than graphically displayed.  My 16 year old loved this film, but kids 13 and under might find it too scary.)

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