JJ Abrams was very busy this year. Unfortunately, maybe a little too busy to make sure his newest production, 10 Cloverfield Lane, stands out. A first-time feature by director Dan Trachtenberg, this quasi-Cloverfield sequel follows a woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who wakes up after a car crash in an underground bunker. She learns from her captor Howard (John Goodman) that there has been an attack, and she must stay there together with another man, Emmitt (John Gallagher Jr.), indefinitely. The story follows the post-apocalypse world of Cloverfield, but only vaguely, showing a completely different perspective. 10 Cloverfield Lane is intentionally quite ambiguous, yet suffers from a muddled, unclear tone, failing to connect us with any of the characters.
The story opens on Michelle running away from her marriage, driving into the night before she’s mysteriously run off the road. Along with Emmitt, her “cell-mate” in the bunker, we begin to learn about each character’s past and what each character is running away from. Emmitt has lived in a bubble all his life, never having left his hometown, and Howard struggles to let go of the memory of his daughter Megan. Abrams seems to want to use the post-apocalypse model as a form of forced character study, yet the writing doesn’t give us enough background to identify with any character fully. Howard certainly presents himself as unsettling, yet good and evil aren’t set up clearly, and while Michelle serves as a central character, the audience is left with nobody to truly empathize with.
While in some movies this moral ambiguity challenges the audience to consider larger human truths, 10 Cloverfield Lane fails to posit any larger commentary. All of the characters have moments of confession about losing a daughter or confronting regrets, but these themes become lost in confusion about the contagion. Tension builds but feels contrived. Abrams may want to say that humans are the real monsters, but even then the film offers so little about its characters that their actions towards each other feel forced.
Ultimately, the movie amounts to an assembly of tense moments with some playful, but overused, tricks. Michelle and Emmitt begin to form a relationship doing puzzles or reading magazines, but the chemistry falls flat. Happy music might undermine violence or a friendly game of charades might morph into a source of suspicion, but these moments are fleeting and add nothing new to the genre. Because the film struggles to emphasize a common thread, tone shifts lose potency as the film relies too heavily on music to set everything right again. Pivotal scenes are reduced to horror clichés, like air ducts or alcohol fires, without the self-awareness to offer a comment on the greater effect of genre clichés. This isn’t to say that the film doesn’t have effective scenes, but it suffers from a weak common thread that undermines its larger unity.
It’s hard not to talk more about 10 Cloverfield Lane without giving away plot details or twists, but generally the movie felt bland. You may feel gratification in feeling scared at times, but nothing felt really scary, and the filmmakers don’t seem to want to commit to any one tonal direction. 10 Cloverfield Lane just feels nebulous, settling with being a mid-way point for the series rather than an effort to address larger questions of isolation or regret.
See 10 Cloverfield Lane at Tinseltown at various times throughout the week, and check back next week for a look at the (hopefully) refreshing and quirky romantic comedy, “Hello, My Name is Doris.”