It's not often I feel compelled to open film reviews with quotes from the television series Family Guy, but critiquing 10 Cloverfield Lane requires all manner of unusual trickery. So: In one of Family Guy 's earlier episodes – back when it was both crude and clever, instead of now merely being idiotically crude – our cartoon hero Peter Griffin is presented by a salesman with the choice of either a boat or "the mystery box." Peter's sensible wife Lois says, of course, they'll take the boat. "Hold on, Lois," interrupts Peter. "A boat's a boat. But the mystery box could be anything. It could even be a boat!"
And that's the best way to describe 10 Cloverfield Lane: on the surface it's a simple thriller, but thanks to producer J.J. Abrams's both brilliant and annoying flair for marketing, it's also a mystery box full of unfettered promise. Why, it could even be a simple thriller!
A bit of background, before going any further down Abrams's mystery-box rabbit hole (which, like most rabbit holes these days, will lead you to scarily obsessive forums on Reddit). In the summer of 2007, Abrams and his creative team unleashed Cloverfield onto an unsuspecting world. Its trailer debuted in front of Transformers (the first one; ah, it was such an innocent time!) depicting what seemed to be a conventional romantic drama about millennials and their cool hipster house parties. Quickly, though, it revealed itself to be a stealth sci-fi blockbuster. The clip offered no stars and no title, ending simply on the haunting image of Lady Liberty's decapitated head rolling down the streets of Manhattan, and a release date.
The hype machine soon went into overdrive – what was this infuriatingly unnamed thing that promised big spectacles and bigger mysteries? How could we have never heard of it before? Insanity! Abrams and company teased the rest of the game expertly, planting faux websites and Easter eggs across the Internet, holding back any actual details of the film – such as its plot or characters or title – until the last possible moment before release. Cloverfield, as it would eventually be called, was a gift of pure mystery-box intrigue: inside, it could be anything you wanted it to be. You just had to buy a ticket and open it for yourself … at which point it was revealed to be a neat, if not exactly revelatory, addition to the monster-movie canon.
Now, almost a decade after Cloverfield first gave a moviegoers pangs of exasperated expectation, comes 10 Cloverfield Lane, a spiritual successor to the original beast, in more ways than one. For this latest film, too, was conceived inside the dark confines of Abrams's beloved mystery box, so much so that the original screenplay had nothing to do with the series, and the small cast only found out about the title, and thus its brand identity, after filming concluded.
This almost preposterous level of chicanery can be viewed as both a strength and weakness, and some audiences will walk away from this new work confused, maybe even angry. The title promises the monster mayhem of the original Cloverfield, though on a smaller scale – as the very words "10 Cloverfield Lane" subtly imply, we're spending time in just a small, rural corner of this storytelling universe. But if not even the cast were aware of their canonical connections to the original film, was it even worth making a connection at all? Is 10 Cloverfield Lane just a simple genre exercise that would have gone unnoticed had it not been retrofitted to appeal to a franchise-hungry market?
Yes, probably – but thank god Abrams decided to add the film to his collection of tricks, because this is a near-masterpiece, an intimate and nerve-wracking shocker that deserves as big an audience as the mystery box can conjure.
The less known about the plot the better, but the bare bones of the narrative find Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) waking up in the underground bunker of conspiracy nut Howard (John Goodman), who warns of a dangerous "attack" that has rendered the outside world uninhabitable (basically Room meets War of the Worlds). From there, the script (by relative newbies Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken, with an assist from Whiplash's Damien Chazelle) takes a series of delightfully unexpected turns, all leading to a climax that is both tense and surprising, even for those expecting a straight-up Cloverfield 2.
And unlike Matt Reeves' shaky-cam direction on the original found-footage Cloverfield, new director Dan Trachtenberg holds the camera with a grip so determined and steady that it's shocking to discover that he's making his feature debut here. This is a work of immense confidence, and the restraint Trachtenberg asks of his leads is remarkable – Winstead and Goodman quietly excel in what could have easily been wild, loud caricatures. Their measured and calculated turns prove that not all genre films need to dispense with subtlety.
But perhaps 10 Cloverfield Lane is not so much a mystery box of a film as it is another kind of fabled container, the one described in the paradox of Schrödinger's Cat. The thought experiment, designed by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger, imagines a cat trapped inside a box with poison, and asks you to consider that the animal is both simultaneously dead and alive, at least until the box is opened and the state of the feline's health can be empirically observed.
It's easy to go into 10 Cloverfield Lane with the hopes that it's everything you want it to be – a monster movie that resolves all the hanging threads from the original film, say – but the film should not live or die based on your expectations alone. Just open the damn thing up. You'll be glad you did.