“10 Cloverfield Lane” — now available at Redbox — is one of those Mystery Mine Ride movies that are all too rare: a film that gives you a small taste of what to expect, but could go in just about any direction. The first movie in the franchise, 2008’s “Cloverfield,” also fit the bill. There was no particular reason to call it “Cloverfield,” except that it needed to be called something. The trailers and buzz pushed a mysterious must-see vibe, and the reputation of producer J.J. Abrams put people in the seats, but we didn’t know it would be a found-footage monster movie until we saw it.
M. Night Shyamalan’s movies used to be pitched that way, too, before his reputation waned. “Cabin in the Woods,” written by “Cloverfield’s” Drew Goddard, also had a “What’s it about?” quality, and TV’s “Lost” and several shows inspired by “Lost’s” success also tried this approach. But for the most part, the idea of holding back surprises is a lost art. Even from “10 Cloverfield Lane’s” previews, we arguably know too much, as it seems clear that Mary Elizabeth Winstead is trapped in a survivalist’s bunker. But is there more to it? Since this movie is impossible to talk about with spoiling, I’ll put the SPOILER WARNING right here.
Indeed, the premise is basically the same as the sequence in “24” Season 2 where Kim gets scared by a cougar and is kidnapped by a survivalist who claims it’s the end of the world outside. Except instead of a cougar, it’s a car accident that leads Michelle (Winstead) to wake up in a locked room in the fallout shelter. She – and the audience – immediately gets two conflicting clues about the nature of her captor (or savior?) right off the bat: She has been nursed back to health with an IV bag, but on the other hand, her leg is chained to the wall.
The “waking up chained to a bed, having been nursed back to health” premise is a rather standard way to start a plot, but it thickens considerably from there. John Goodman, as Howard, the farmer who claims he saved Michelle’s life, is a big reason why “10 Cloverfield Lane” is so engrossing. He’s alternately sympathetic, sweet, simple, wise, creepy and frightening. He’ll adorably tell Michelle and the other shelter guest, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), that they’re welcome to watch his collection of DVDs and VHS tapes, just be sure to return them to their cases afterward. He seems like a harmless tech laggard. But then he’ll also demand that his guests show appreciation for the fact that he saved their lives.
He’ll say crazy-sounding things about aliens, but then he’ll undercut it by saying he knows Michelle and Emmett probably think he’s crazy. “10 Cloverfield Lane’s” mystery works well because it seems Howard is cuckoo bananas, but there’s evidence that he’s telling the truth about a chemical, nuclear or alien threat outside. The radio scanner picks up nothing. That could be faked. But seeing a disfigured, dying woman on the other side of the glass in the airlock is hard to discount.
(Although Howard claims the air is killing the woman, I theorize that she was bitten and poisoned by one of the dog-sized aliens. She yells “It barely touched me!,” which would be an odd way to describe air. But it could also be that she breathed in some of the green air that we see at the film’s end. The Earth’s atmosphere isn’t toxic, as Howard fears, but the aliens do have chemical weapons.)
Winstead and Gallagher also play off Goodman nicely; I liked all three characters. The film works as a study of three disparate people thrown together by fate – Michelle a clothing designer who just left her husband, Emmett a high school track stud who is too timid to wander beyond a 40-mile radius in Louisiana, and Howard a man who values survival above all else, and has no regrets about it. Or so he claims; he also makes other claims that seem fishier as the narrative moves forward.
But there are also nice scenes of the makeshift family doing jigsaw puzzles and listening to the jukebox. “10 Cloverfield Lane” yanks a viewer all over the place, but in a pitch-perfect way: we can’t possibly predict what’s going to happen next, yet there’s complete plausibility to the goings-on. Hats off to the three newcomers who penned the script, and to newcomer Dan Trachtenberg, who directs with aplomb. And to the set designer: the shelter seems tolerable more so than claustrophobic, especially with the brightly lit living room. Yet it still has its chilling elements, like an air duct that Michelle must crawl through, and the ladder leading up to the surface.
And then there’s the ending. It was already a great movie up to this point, but we knew “10 Cloverfield Lane” had to tie into “Cloverfield” somehow, and it gets bonus points for the utterly strange way it builds a franchise. Not everyone will dig the ending; I think “Cloverfield” fans will like it more than people watching this as a standalone film (which it can be, but heck, see “Cloverfield” if you haven’t already). But at the very least, there’s no denying it has a fun “What the heck!?” quality to it, like the old Mystery Mine Ride at Knott’s Camp Snoopy (which they unfortunately started advertising in more specific fashion after the first mysterious ride, which turned out to be a pickup truck driver recklessly navigating a cliffside road).
Additionally, it signals that there’s a franchise to be built here, as Michelle chooses to travel to Houston to be of some help in the Southern seaboard’s battle against the alien monsters. Now the tricky thing is how do you make a third movie? Part two wasn’t a “Godzilla”-style film because that’s been overdone, and part three probably won’t be an “Independence Day”-style film for the same reason. So the filmmakers need to find a new approach to this wider narrative that’s just as bizarre and fun as the first two movies. That will be the real challenge, because as filmgoers we don’t want what “Cloverfield 3” seems to promise; we again want something out of left field.