“Cloverfield,” a film I watched for the first time this week, is terrible. It is a multilayered mess that features obnoxious acting, a story littered with ruinous plot holes, headache-inducing cinematography and all the tension of your great-grandma’s wrinkly skin. In short, it’s generally unwatchable. “10 Cloverfield Lane” is the sequel (or, as J.J. Abrams calls it, “blood relative”) that no one asked for, constructed in secrecy to generate hype that would never have erupted otherwise. I expected nothing of this movie, but what I got was a pleasant, if not somewhat mixed, surprise.
Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) likes to run away from her problems. After getting into a fight with her boyfriend, she takes a long country drive that leads to her getting T-boned on a highway in the middle of nowhere, and she crashes into unconsciousness. She wakes up in the underground bunker of the enigmatic Howard (John Goodman), who tells her that the world has been decimated by a bio-attack perpetrated by an unknown party. However, things start to grow uneasy as Michelle discovers Howard might not be who he says he is.
“10 Cloverfield Lane” is strikingly different from its older brother in that it is set up more as a psychological thriller, not a creature feature. Which makes sense, once you discover that the film was conceived by Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken as “The Cellar,” an entity totally separate from the “Cloverfield” universe. It wasn’t until J.J. Abrams got a hold of it (and integrated aliens), and Oscar-nominee Damien Chazelle doctored it that it became the film we know today.
I say this because “The Cellar” is a really good movie. It’s possibly the most gripping suspense tale I’ve seen since “Ex Machina,” and it’s equally intimate and self-contained. Accompanied by rock solid acting and directing, these elements allow for a laser-focused story that shepherds us through the uncertainty and fear felt by Michelle. I can’t remember the last time I genuinely had no clue where a flick was headed, and couldn’t tell who was to be believed. It was an unsettling experience that put a big, dumb, anxious smile on my face.
The last 20 minutes, however, were clearly tacked on to earn the “Cloverfield” connection, and in that regard, the ending earns its name. By that, I mean it sucks. It creates several loose ends that feel unsatisfying, and the lazy, unbelievable conclusion betrays everything the film has been working toward. You feel cheated as an audience member, like you wasted the previous hour and a half, and it’s unfair to the great movie it’s leaching off of.
It’s unjust to attack the ending too harshly though, as “The Cellar” would, most likely, never have seen the light of day had Mr. Abrams not decided to incorporate it into a pre-established universe. It’s just a damn shame to see a great film muddied by modern production and distribution methods. You could certainly do worse at the theatre, but you could also do better. You might as well try to find somewhere that’s still showing “The Witch,” or stream “The Exorcist” on Netflix if you want your satisfying thriller fix.