Sci-Fi Thriller Film Review 2016: "10 Cloverfield Lane" (W/ John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead)
Woh Nelly! What. A. Rush. Just when you thought you've seen it all, a smart mainstream film from the brain trust of science fiction wunderkind J.J Abrams who executive produced this claustrophobic fast burn of a psychological thriller comes along and both excites and genuinely stimulates your senses. In what amounts to a perfect fusion of genre conventions to yield something truly invigorating and effective, '10 Cloverfield Lane' is a boundless breath of renewed energy and fresh air with three central performances for the ages. At its center, John Goodman's paranoid conspiracy theorist Howard who has a bad case of aliens on the brain brilliantly centralizes the confined conflict to his fallout bunker while keeping the ever-intrepid Mary Elizabeth Winstead and affably aloof John Gallagher, Jr. on their toes in a game of guess-a-minute cat-and-mouse that unfolds wonderfully.
The most noticeable thing about this film is the production design and stark cinematography. 90% of the film completely foregoes the shaky cam, found footage treatment of this film's 2008 cult-hit forebear "Cloverfield" that gives a polished and assured look to the proceedings. For anyone familiar with the Abrams vehicles "Super 8", both "Star Trek" re-imaginings and "Mission Impossible III", the lens flairs and world constructed here are consistent with those prior movies. However, this film has much more in common with "Buried", the Quentin Tarantino-produced film that starred Ryan Reynolds than it does with a mega budget blockbuster. Taking place primarily in a nuclear fallout bunker and featuring just an ensemble of three actors, this is a masterclass of a character study and a survival drama with subtle sci-fi elements that creep in just when you least thought they would. The lynch pin here is the ticking time bomb that is Howard, a retired satellite engineer who believes in military experiments and extraterrestrial inhabitants who have come to lay waste to our planet a'la "Independence Day". Initially convincing Mary Elizabeth Winstead's Michelle and John Gallagher, Jr.'s Emmett that the aftermath of a global catastrophe has rendered Earth's atmosphere unable to support life, his actions soon raise suspicions and invite complex ranges of emotions from both to cause them to seriously doubt his imaginatively bold claims. Dismissed as a crackpot, Michelle's resourcefulness comes in very handy as she works diligently to expose Goodman as a fraud even if doing so could get her killed. It is this tricky tightrope that forms the crux of their combative relationship and watching both actors skillfully weave throughout the sparse script is more joyous than any set piece of colossal destruction. Gallagher, Jr. who some audiences may remember from the lauded Brie Larson indie drama "Short Term 12" and his ensemble work on Aaron Sorkin's short lived "The Newsroom" offers an insiders perspective as to the machinations and motivations of Goodman. While Emmett may lack Michelle's intelligence and investigative skills, he provides a wealth of backstory to Goodman's character that allows Michelle to come to terms with her higher calling of exposing him and getting free. Many of his lines have a comedic and satirical tone and the actor really displays excellent charisma and, later, dread at the prospect of realizing the unknown.
You may be wondering if this film has really anything in common with the prior film aside from the name recognition. Frankly, I was hard pressed to believe there was any connection up until the last 25 minutes or so. "10 Cloverfield Lane" exists within the universe first designed by "The Martian" and "The Cabin In The Woods" screenwriter and producer Drew Goddard before he broke out into the public eye. Pairing with writer-director Matt Reeves, who returns to executive produce this film and later went on to direct 2014's "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes", it shares no story elements or beats from the original but lives up to its name with the monster/alien elements during this film's final sequences. Other than that, it has a completely different tone and feel and the epic, bigness of the original is downsized to make it more character-centric. It shouldn't surprise anyone that the main scribe on this was Damien Chazelle whose breakthrough "Whiplash" demonstrated precisely what can be done with a minimalist set and locations, few, immensely talented actors and a lean, tight script. Like his former debut feature, this film has absolutely no fat on it with plot threads that just dangle like curdled swiss cheese with no payoff. Chazelle and first timer Dan Trachtenberg were helped immensely by the assured backing of JJ Abrams "Bad Robot" production company and after this I cannot contain my excitement over what will be Trachtenberg's follow-up. Like Jeff Nichols ("Take Shelter", "Mud" and the soon-to-be released "Midnight Special") and Rian Johnson ("The Brother's Bloom", "Looper" and the in-production "Star Wars Episode VIII") before him, it is evident that he has a natural gift and a certain stamp that is just begging to be carved out. He is poised to join their esteemed ranks of the new school science fiction directors.
Don't get me wrong. This may be the most un-sci-fi science fiction film that has come out in quite some time. The first two-thirds are reminiscent of films like "Cast Away", "All Is Lost" and "Escape from Alcatraz" mixed with the dystopian components of "The Road", "Judge Dredd" and the Michael Shannon and Kodi Smit-McPhee starrer "Young Ones". The movie starts at 0 and then as if you are free-falling while aboard the Six Flags ride "Kingda Ka" at maximum velocity, amps up and leaves you choking to catch your breath before the next, inevitable, but no less surprising drop. Mary Elizabeth Winstead really does do career best work here and her heroine makes Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss and Shailene Woodley's Beatrice look like dumbfounded morons. Her character shares more in common with Saoirse Ronan's titular Hanna than the former two. But, alas, it is veteran Goodman whose work here is spellbinding and his imposing serio-comic portrayal isn't reminiscent of any work he's done before. It was great to see him go against the grain at this late stage in his career. Hopefully come Oscar season he will nab that ever elusive statuette that he certainly deserves.