“10 Cloverfield Lane” Is the Year’s First Great Summer Movie

“10 Cloverfield Lane” Is the Year’s First Great Summer Movie

When the credits rolled on 10 Cloverfield Lane, I looked down to see that stray popcorn covered the front of my shirt. At some point during the movie — probably during the first five minutes — I’d stopped paying much attention to whether the popcorn was actually making it into my mouth.

10 Cloverfield Lane is one of the best roller-coaster rides mainstream cinema has seen in the last few years, and this despite — in fact, in large part because of — the fact that it eschews most of the CGI swagger that dominates movies like its forbear, Cloverfield.

The new film, directed by Dan Trachtenberg, is only a “blood relative” to 2008’s Cloverfield, says producer J.J. Abrams — who surprised the world when the film was announced in January as a project Abrams had somehow produced amidst the global hubbub of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Trachtenberg’s film, which was made for about $8 million less than it cost — in non-adjusted 1970s dollars — to make the original Star Wars, started life as an independent production that was only tied to what is now the Cloverfield franchise when the producers noticed certain similarities between the two films.

The upside is that an excellent film is now coming to theaters with a pedigree that will ensure it’s seen much more widely than it would have been otherwise; the downside is that the film’s very title becomes a sort of spoiler for anyone who’s seen the first movie.

10 Cloverfield Lane thrives on surprises, ambiguity, and atmosphere. To make an observation that will probably appear in most reviews, it’s certainly found a far more versatile and terrifying monster than the first film: John Goodman, whose unmistakable jowls hang from his face in grey slabs.

Now 63, Goodman’s lost his bounce but kept his bulk, and he’s perfectly cast in the role of Howard, a man who runs an underground bunker where Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) finds herself imprisoned after a car accident.

A question that arises immediately and hangs over most of the film’s remainder is whether Howard is right when he tells Michelle and Emmet (John Gallagher, Jr.), another man who shares the bunker, that they’re better off down below than up above: just because you’re paranoid, as it’s been said, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

Winstead, already beloved to indie-minded science fiction fans for roles including the chill pixie dream girl in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, ascends into the Bruce Campbell stratosphere of B-movie A-listers with 10 Cloverfield Lane. She finds just the right tone for this material: completely investing in the role, but resisting any temptation to overplay the panic or rage.

Women escaping from underground rooms are suddenly prevalent in mainstream fiction, and it’s to the credit of Trachtenberg and his team — including screenwriters Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle — that 10 Cloverfield Lane can stand capably alongside the movie Room and the Netflix series The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

Although the three are wildly different in tone and plot, they all share a concern — I credit my girlfriend Dana with this observation — with humanizing women who experience abduction and abuse, with demonstrating that they need not be permanently defined by their most shocking experiences.

The ending of 10 Cloverfield Lane — and I’ll say no more — will be divisive. It’s not exactly what I was hoping for, but then, I hadn’t dared to hope at all that this quasi-sequel to a monster movie that was only okay would turn out to be one of the most compelling films of the year.

Jay Gabler