10 Cloverfield Lane is – among other things – a piece of marketing genius. Originally conceived under the title of The Cellar, JJ Abrams’ production company Bad Robot noticed thematic similarities to Cloverfield and changed the title to reflect this. Suddenly, a movie which could very easily have come out and been completely ignored had a bit of buzz behind it. Dan Trachtenberg’s debut film was all set to be a hit.
And for good reason, because changed title or not 10 Cloverfield Lane is an interesting film. Its connection to Cloverfield is slight, but there is enough there that it doesn’t feel completely ridiculous. Rather than masquerading monsters, however, we spend most of the film inside a cellar, where Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up chained to a wall. She is told by Howard (John Goodman) that the world outside is gone, something has attacked and the air is contaminated meaning that they have to stay where they are. Alongside him is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) who believes every word of this story. Of course, Michelle isn’t quite as convinced and sets out to unravel the mystery while trying to survive with these two strangers.
Like many films in this vein, 10 Cloverfield Lane suffers because of the genre. When you spent around ninety minutes building up to a reveal, it is always hard to please. For most people in the audience, it is going to fail to live up to the idea that they have in their head. However, the reveal is by no means a complete dud and it is hard to see what else they could have done. It is not so much a problem of the film, as a problem of the audience.
Because when this film is at its best, it is genuinely thrilling. Watching Michelle, Howard and Emmett’s day to day life and the tensions and mysteries that are central to that will have you perched on the edge of your seat. Goodman, in particular, steals the show. From the second Howard appears on screen you are trying to put your finger on exactly what is wrong with him. A task that proves impossible. You can tell something is not right, but every time you think you’ve figured it out, another curveball is thrown your way. Winstead and Gallagher just have to cling to his coattails and follow along, something they do a pretty good job of.
And yet the film is not all tense standoffs. There are some genuine moments of humour here. Which is important, because without them this could easily have become unbearable. Dan Trachtenberg shows a flair for walking that line. For ramping everything up, deflating it slightly and then ramping it all over again. It’s a talent that points to a bright future for him and whatever you think about the marketing of 10 Cloverfield Lane, the introduction of an exciting new director to as many people as possible, can only be a good thing.