You've probably heard that the new movie 10 Cloverfield Lane started out as an unrelated thriller called The Cellar (or Valencia). And then producer J.J. Abrams decided to rename it 10 Cloverfield Lane, and make it a "sister movie" to his 2008 sleeper hit. This was probably a mistake, because it underscores that this new film, while entertaining, just isn't in the same league as Cloverfield.
I'm going to try to avoid any spoilers in this short review, because the surprises in 10 Cloverfield Lane are a big part of how the movie functions. But I'm going to assume that you're ok with me talking about stuff that was already revealed in this trailer:
As that trailer shows, Mary-Elizabeth Winstead plays Michelle, a woman who's been in a car accident. She wakes up in a scary mysterious cellar, the captive of a weird guy named Harold (John Goodman) who claims there's been an apocalypse of some sort and "everyone outside of here is dead". He's sort of a doomsday prepper who believes the end actually has come and now she's stuck in there with him, plus another guy, Emmett (Mason Gallagher). But Harold is a scary wacko, and it's clear he's not telling the whole truth.
It's clear as you watch 10 Cloverfield Lane that it's still not really connected to Cloverfield, beyond their titles. They're not even really the same genre: Cloverfield is a wild and hectic ride where a giant monster attacks 30 minutes in and the characters are running through a city under attack, and 10 Cloverfield Lane is a slow, paranoid "trapped in a bunker" thriller.
The great pleasure of watching 10 Cloverfield Lane comes mainly from watching John Goodman's masterfully weird performance, as a childlike control freak who may or may not have been right to prepare for an apocalypse.
Goodman's usual affability is almost completely subsumed inside a set of twitchy mannerisms, and he manages to keep you completely spellbound by his mercurial behaviour — without ever overplaying it. The "redneck" aspects of his character sometimes feel a tad broad, but Goodman manages to make Harold seem like someone you could actually meet.
And the heart of the film is the interplay between Harold and Michelle, who has to figure out if he's telling the truth but also keep herself safe. Michelle has the most fleshed-out character arc in the film — at the very beginning, we're told that she always runs away whenever there's trouble and then she's trapped with someone whose first impulse is always to hide.
Dealing with that situation changes her and we get to see it happen. Winstead does a decent job of showing Michelle's evolution and she more than holds her own against Goodman.
That said, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a much more conventional film than Cloverfield was. When Cloverfield came out in 2008, I hadn't seen anything quite like it. We hadn't had a lot of movies about giant monsters attacking cities, full stop, in the decade since Roland Emmerich tried to reinvent Godzilla. And Cloverfield's approach to the "monster movie" genre was full of new tricks, both stylistically and in terms of actual storytelling.
By contrast, I feel like I've seen a ton of movies like 10 Cloverfield Lane — even just in the past few years. The setup, with three people stuck in a tiny enclosed space with mysterious stuff going on, is a staple of claustrophobic psychological thrillers, especially low-budget or independent productions. (Just in the past half year, there's been 400 Days and Air, off the top of my head.)
When it comes to the "tense psychological drama in a box" subgenre, too, 10 Cloverfield Lane is mostly content to obey the usual conventions.
That said, there are some cool/shocking surprises in 10 Cloverfield Lane, especially in the final half-hour. And this is a stylish example of the claustrophobic thriller genre — in fact, the weird mysteries, Bear McCreary's brassy score and Dan Trachtenberg's tight, creepily domestic direction all reminded me quite a bit of Abrams' most famous TV show, in a good way. Several times while watching 10 Cloverfield Lane, I kept thinking, "this could easily be an episode of Lost".
So I do think it was a mistake to rebrand an unrelated thriller as being somehow connected to Cloverfield. And it's hard not to see this as a manifestation of Abrams' great foible as a creator: The love of sleight of hand and manipulating audience expectations. This film's title is a ruse, a misdirection, a way to set you up to be surprised when you actually get something that's not even remotely in that same field of clover as that other movie.
Sometimes, when Abrams plays with an audience's expectations, it yields unexpected delights — but in this case, I feel like it backfired, for me at least. I kept expecting stuff that this film didn't deliver on.
And you know, not everything has to be a franchise. Sometimes a movie can be a standalone, its own thing. That's OK. It makes me sad that the only way they could get people to come see this new movie is by branding it with the name of a previous hit.
That's part of why I'm telling you guys this: I think you'll enjoy 10 Cloverfield Lane more if you think of it, instead, as a brand new thriller called Valencia.