10 Cloverfield Lane **|****

John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 10 Cloverfield Lane
John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 10 Cloverfield Lane

When a teaser trailer was first released two months ago for a new JJ Abrams production, it was difficult to believe that such a promising movie could have been kept so thoroughly under the radar. Pitched as a “blood relative” and “spiritual successor” of the 2008 found footage monster movie Cloverfield, it was intentionally left unclear what this new film’s connection was to its “predecessor”. Now that 10 Cloverfield Lane has finally arrived, the relationship between the two still eludes me but what I can say with confidence is that I was ultimately let down by this entry in an apparently burgeoning franchise.

After surviving a severe car accident when driving through rural Louisiana, the newly engaged Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up chained to a pipe with a man named Howard (John Goodman) claiming to have saved her from the wreck. They, along with another man named Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), are in a doomsday bunker that Howard spent years building and his efforts seem to have paid off, as he also claims that a widespread attack has decimated the entire population of the world above. Fearing Howard’s questionable motives and deteriorating mental state, Michelle and Emmett plot to escape the bunker and discover the truth for themselves.

With any kind of mysterious setup for a psychological thriller like this, the payoff not only has to match the quality of the preceding story but it should ideally exceed it. To say that 10 Cloverfield Lane doesn’t stick the landing would be a vast understatement, as it veers wildly in a direction that feels incredibly tacked on and frankly betrays the mostly well-earned tension of its narrative. Rarely is a producer’s influence so obvious on a film but it’s not difficult to spot the exact moment when Abrams forcefully grabs the reins from first-time director Dan Trachtenberg and gleefully sneers “I’ll take it from here.”

Though I can’t say that I was fully on board with the film before that point anyway, at least there was reason to believe that things were headed in the right direction. The foundation of solid acting, particularly by Winstead and Goodman, and the slow-burning character moments build nicely on the initial disorientation of the situation that the main character finds herself in. The film’s most effective scene, likely to inspire bouts of nervous laughter throughout the theater, revolves around the surprising prompts in a quietly revealing game of Taboo that rides a perfect median between frightening and funny.

As a whole, though, the movie just didn’t work for me but I do sincerely hope that it finds an audience and that it’s rewarded handsomely at the box office. With a “modest” $15 million budget and a killer ad campaign behind it, this could prove to be an overwhelming surprise hit like Deadpool was last month. It’s important for Hollywood to learn that pays to invest wisely in smaller scale features rather than to throw $200 million at tent-pole movies that seem destined to under-perform. Even if the experiment of 10 Cloverfield Lane came up short in the end, I hope its production principles go on to inspire other like-minded projects in the future.