Producer J.J. Abrams refers to 10 Cloverfield Lane as a "spiritual successor" to his 2008 hit Cloverfield. What this means in plain English, scrubbed of Producerese, is that the film is not a sequel, its title not a franchise label but a stroke of marketing brilliance.
Those who go to 10 Cloverfield eager for more "found" footage of their favorite giant monster may throw popcorn at the screen once they realize that the movie contains no devastation of metropolises. What it does contain, surprisingly, is a tauter, scarier, more absorbing story than Cloverfield, executed with skill by first-time feature director Dan Trachtenberg and three actors at the top of their game.
That's right — three. Far from a big-budget disaster flick, 10 Cloverfield is a chamber drama that resembles nothing so much as William Friedkin's little-seen 2006 film Bug. Both are about paranoid, bunkered-down conspiracy theorists who draw frightened outsiders into their orbit.
Here the frightened outsider is Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a young woman who flees into the Louisiana backcountry after a breakup, crashes her car and wakes up in a concrete bunker. It belongs to survivalist Howard (John Goodman), who patiently explains to Michelle that he's not a deranged abductor but her savior. The world above the bunker has been devastated by a chemical attack, and everyone can be presumed dead except the two of them and the bunker's third occupant, a good-natured local yokel named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.).
Michelle is no naïf, and she isn't about to swallow this story on Howard's say-so. While Emmett has meekly accepted their host's authority, she pushes for proof — and for the truth about Howard's motives. Tensions and tempers rise in the bunker.
Any more specifics would count as spoilers. Suffice it to say that screenwriters Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) milk plenty of suspense from the story's core quandary: Is Howard a madman or an accurate prophet of doom? Goodman plays the role cunningly, trading on the audience's tendency to see him as a gruffly lovable teddy bear. Howard can be that, but he can also be a paternalistic control freak. And when he bemoans Michelle's refusal to see that "safety is in [her] best interest," something darker rears its head.
The screenplay gives the other two characters only the most perfunctory fleshing out, but the actors breathe life into them. Winstead conveys Michelle's hair-trigger sensitivity to any kind of coercion, while Gallagher (Short Term 12) gradually reveals that Emmett is smarter and more resourceful than he seems.
Trachtenberg uses the confines of the subterranean refuge, where almost all the film's action takes place, to increase the dread to sometimes-unbearable levels. Full disclosure: I found Cloverfield more silly than scary. With its slow burn and richer characters, 10 Cloverfield plays on a whole different and — for some viewers — more potent set of fears about the bad things that can happen in "safe" spaces.
But ... what does all this have to do with the monster that rose from the watery depths to terrorize New York? In its final 10 minutes, 10 Cloverfield morphs into a different genre of film from the one we've been watching, a jarring stylistic shift that feels like a last-minute effort to placate Cloverfield fans. Yet the movie remains as much a literal sequel or prequel to the hit monster flick as Abrams' Super 8 was — that is, not at all.
Some may be offended by the bait-and-switch. I'm more inclined to think this is the greatest trick Abrams ever pulled: He finagled a wide theatrical release for an offbeat original property by luring audiences to see a sequel that doesn't exist.