Irrespective of the anticipation, its arrival has come as a surprise, with the trailer – which only dropped in January – bearing the first mention of the Cloverfield stamp. The film had previously gone under the radar as it began life as an unconnected spec script called The Cellar (later entering production under the name Valencia), with Whiplash’s Damien Chazelle redrafting the work of Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken.
Directed by first-timer Dan Trachtenberg, who ditches the shaky cam stylings of the original for something more smartly shot, it follows aspiring fashion designer Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) – who’s involved in a serious car accident at the outset, as she flees her life in New Orleans for reasons unknown (Bradley Cooper provides the voice of her fiancé Ben, who we hear on a voicemail pleading with her to talk to him shortly before her car flips).
Michelle awakens to a nightmare, when she finds herself attached to a drip and chained to the wall of a cell in a tightly sealed bunker. Showing immediate resourcefulness and resolve, she puts despairing to one side as she sets about one of many ingenious attempts at escape. Her captor has evidently messed with the wrong woman.
When Michelle meets her jailer – conspiracy theory-spouting survivalist Howard (John Goodman) – he tells her that there’s been an attack above ground, and insists that he has in fact saved her life. Although her suspicions persist, Michelle is introduced to the more agreeable Emmett (John Gallagher Jr) who has talked his way into the shelter, and the trio begin to carve out a new existence in the most surreal of domestic circumstances. Yet the lure of the outside proves strong – with the kicker being that even as relations inside the bunker deteriorate, freedom may involve leaping from the frying pan straight into the fire.
Although Trachtenberg’s film riffs on public paranoia surrounding terrorism, the Cloverfield name alludes to an entirely different kind of foe. Attaching itself to what is now a franchise is both a weakness and a strength – as it signposts the specific nature of the threat, making what lies beyond the bunker both a concrete danger (Howard may seem unhinged but the film’s very title suggests he’s not a total fantasist) and of course guessable – even if it’s not exactly what you might think. Nevertheless, the prospect of some sort of creature-based action may encourage those averse to low-key thrills to hang on in there, while fans of Cloverfield will certainly relish the opportunity to revisit that world, however tangentially.
That double-edged sword aside, what we have here is quite simply a first-rate nail-biter and, frankly, with a cast this strong and a story this tight it doesn’t really need the bells and whistles of sci-fi. It might have been as similarly shrouded in secrecy as its predecessor but 10 Cloverfield Lane shows a more restrained hand in its actual execution; Trachtenberg cranks up the tension with aplomb, keeping us in the bunker for longer than you’d expect, showing an eye for interesting details and making much of the mind games and shifting character dynamics.
With a cast this strong and a story this tight it doesn’t really need the bells and whistles of sci-fi
John Gallagher Jr impresses, but it’s the face-off between an unimprovably cast Goodman and a credibly imperilled yet splendidly gutsy Winstead that’ll keep you hooked. Their ongoing battle of nerve and wits, of psychology and physicality, proves as edge-of-the-seat as any expensive action sequence. In its focus on complex personalities and human drama 10 Cloverfield Lane is so much more than just a recognisable brand name.
10 Cloverfield Lane is released in UK cinemas on Friday 18th March.
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