10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

Rating: C+

Dir: Dan Trachtenberg
Star: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman. John Gallagher, Jr.

I was a moderate fan of the original Cloverfield. The shaky-cam got kinda old after a while, but the monster was great, and Michael Giacchino’s fabulous composition for the end credits still pops up on my playlist occasionally. I’m not quite sure if this is intended to be set in the same universe or not. The first 80 minutes could be – although the characters seem entirely oblivious to what happened in New York – but it then seems to shift in a different direction entirely. The makers have said it isn’t, which begs the question: why the title tie-in? It’s like Marvel making 11 Avengers Avenue, while stating it’s not part of their cinematic universe.

Since I’m wearing my complaining hat, neither is there anything necessarily wrong with films which start as one thing, then abruptly become another. From Dusk Till Dawn does that, but the shift there felt like it made sense. Here, it’s a great deal less so: indeed, this feels as if the writers got bored with their own concept, 70 minutes in, and decided to splice on a final reel from another production (perhaps one directed by M. Night Shyamalan). Various alternative endings were apparently considered, most of them bleaker; I tend to think they could have been more effective than the one actually used.

It’s a shame since, on their own, either story could have been perfectly fine. Indeed, both are survival stories at their heart, albeit facing radically different threats. The first half has Michelle (Winstead) driving out of New Orleans, apparently after an argument with her boyfriend, only to be involved in a car-crash. She wakes up, to find herself chained to the wall in an underground bunker, the captive of Howard (Goodman), a survivalist. He tells her the apocalypse for which he has prepared, is under way, and leaving the bunker would mean certain death. The only other person down there with them is Emmett (Gallagher), a worker who helped build the shelter, and arrived seeking sanctuary just before Howard locked the door.

Like most of its kind, this is better when exploiting the audience’s uncertainty, over how much of what Howard says, is actually true. While it’s clear early on, that he is not the most stable of characters, does that necessarily make him wrong about the outside world? I was also struck by some distinct similarities to a much less known indie horror film, Shellter, which played the Phoenix Fear Con back in 2010, although I certainly don’t claim anything more than coincidence there. Personally, I found Shellter superior: it did a better job of maintaining a claustrophobic tone throughout the film, and the cheerily B-movie experience it delivered, felt more authentic and appropriate to its content.

However, there are a trio of solid performances at the core of Lane. Even if this goes off the rails somewhat – or, at least, changes tracks to a completely different destination – Trachtenberg does a solid job of creating a pressure-cooker atmosphere. The release of “need to know” information is well-handled, and helps build the tension to a point where you know it’s inevitably going to blow. Just a shame the script isn’t nearly as adept at tidying up the resulting mess.