Before he was taking us to a galaxy far, far away, or to the final frontier, J.J. Abrams gave us Cloverfield. Being one of the first found footage movies to arrive post-Blair Witch, this was a film that showed a new way to enjoy not only the monster flick genre, but the world of sci-fi in general. Now almost eight years later, J.J. is here with a new tale of a similar notion – the very mysterious 10 Cloverfield Lane, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, and John Gallagher Jr.
Taking place in a world much like that of the original Cloverfield (though not a direct sequel), this film introduces us to Michelle (Winstead), an individual who seems to be continuing her trend of running away from her problems. After surviving a fatal car crash, Michelle wakes up to find herself chained to the wall of an underground bunker. Her “gracious host,” Howard (Goodman) seems to have quite a bit of mystery about him, one that Michelle just can’t seem to decode. Now she, along with farmboy Emmitt (Gallagher Jr.) have to figure out exactly what Howard is trying to do, and if his tales of a chemical explosion above ground have any truth to them.
When someone asks me what I define as the best of the sci-fi genre, I tend to explain that they are the ones that inherently don’t feel like they would be labeled with such a description. There’s no sign of over the top alien designs, no true abuse of Cgi, but yet there is one obvious, simple ingredient: a good story. And Cloverfield Lane has that in spades. It isn’t exactly the kind of “present” that is given to you right on Christmas morning, but as you push away the wrapping paper, what is left is a product of a great team of people coming together to deliver a film that in many ways stands shoulders above its cinematic blood relative.
To explain what exactly makes Lane such an impressive little movie would best be a discussion saved for after you’ve watched it. However, there are plenty of things I can disclose.
For one, this is hands down one of the greatest performances of John Goodman’s career. Taking a page from that of Robin Williams in One Hour Photo, Goodman escapes his roles from films prior and becomes Howard to an almost terrifying degree. Every minute your view to whether you trust him or not changes, and though that might be in large part due to the script, it is really all thanks to the carefully crafted decisions of Goodman himself that make this a fictional individual that I found all too real. As I sat there, in all my nostalgic glow, I saw my childhood connections to this famous TV dad shatter before my eyes.
Similarly, Winstead’s Michelle is just as engaging. Creating my vote for one of the best female characters in 2016, Michelle is not only a fantastic tribute to kick butt female leads like Ripley and Sarah Connor, but also brings in a bit more of a real world element. This makes her a new example for film schools across the world on how to write a hero’s journey protagonist, while not making your lead fall into the stereotypes of films past. Right from the get-go, this is a smart lady, who though outside of her comfort zone, doesn’t let herself fall to the waste side.
But the winning combination is when these two, along with Gallagher Jr., come together and showcase their combined talents. Goodman and Winstead bring the classic protagonist and antagonist battle to new complicated levels, dealing with slight compassion for her “host.” The story ends up being a classic David and Goliath tale. Though in large part this is really about the relationship between Howard and Michelle, the few moments where Emmitt is at the center are some of the best of the entire movie, and hopefully, will prove to future casting agents that Gallagher Jr. is a treasure, just as much as his more well-known co-stars.
Some of you may be curious as to who the director of this film is, and let me tell you that with this movie, you’re never going to forget his name: Dan Trachtenberg. Known for his work on shorts such as Portal: No Escape, this newcomer has a lot of tricks up his sleeve. From handling the most intense of surprises to the weirdest yet most perfect of little comedic bits, this is a movie that doesn’t look like it is handled by anyone remotely amateur, and I can’t wait to see what is put in the hands of this newcomer in the future.
If there is to be one issue with this movie, as minimal as it really is in the grand scheme, it is the combination of pacing and some tiny story elements. There are times where you could feel that the film was attempting to stretch itself past a certain point, to make it fit a normal feature length running time. At these moments, which are very heavy on the exposition, it becomes pretty obvious that they weren’t handled with as much care as the more expertly crafted sequences. These also tend to leave more questions than they do answers, which can be enjoyable to guess at times, but much like the damaged puzzle of a snorkeling cat that Emmitt and Michelle attempt to complete during their stay at Howard’s bunker, you tend to become frustrated when you can’t mind these missing “pieces”.
With the ability to stand on its own and not fall into a hole, like so many films of its kind tend to, 10 Cloverfield Lane is certainly one of the first great movies of 2016. Though it definitely takes its time to get the ball rolling, when the story truly kicks into gear, you never want this ride – as claustrophobic and dirty as it is – to stop. With adrenaline pouring out of its every crack, along with a terror (real world and fantasy combined) that sticks with you, this is a movie not to ignore. Thank you, J.J. You might not exactly be Rod Serling, but if these Cloverfield films are your attempt at creating your own cinematic Twilight Zone, then I’m with you to infinity and beyond.