DISCLAIMER: This review contains mild spoilers for anyone who has yet to see 10 Cloverfield Lane. Please continue responsibly.
In 1958, writer/producer Rod Serling, following his success as a burgeoning writer, successfully sold a sci-fi teleplay called “The Time Element” to the CBS network. The network, presumingly balking at the then still considered “low” genre of science fiction, shelved the script, not putting it to film. Months later, producer Bert Granet found the script in CBS’s vaults and decided to shoot it as an episode of his show, Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse. After it aired in late November 1958, letters of praise filled CBS’ offices, and Serling used his newfound clout to sell the network on his idea for a new anthology series that would bring that special blend of social commentary, fantasy, science fiction and horror to television screens around the world for decades to come: The Twilight Zone.
Smash cut to July, 2007. Writer/producer J.J. Abrams, already a well known figure in the television world for creating and/or bringing to the screen shows like Alias and Lost, has just had a major blockbuster movie success the previous year with his first feature film, Mission: Impossible III. Now, having secured a production deal with Paramount Pictures, Abrams takes inspiration from visiting a Tokyo toy store filled with Godzilla figures, and commissions a script for a new kind of giant monster movie. This monster movie would take place on American shores and be shot in an innovative new style, mimicking YouTube footage of war zones and natural disasters. Even more innovative was the film’s marketing, building a shroud of mystery about itself by dropping a titleless trailer before Michael Bay’s Transformers. The huge buzz generated by the enigmatic trailer paid off, and Cloverfield was a huge January hit, bringing giant monster movies back to the forefront, kick starting into high gear the found footage genre (pioneered by The Blair Witch Project a decade earlier), and revolutionizing movie marketing thanks to the buzz generated by an ever unfolding mystery.
Dissolve to January, 2016. Unsuspecting moviegoers sitting in front of yet another Michael Bay movie (13 Hours this time) were treated to a trailer for a new Cloverfield movie, one that hadn’t been previously announced or even anticipated. Rather than just allowing the mysterious details of the plot to generate buzz this time, Abrams and Bad Robot pulled another magic trick, and announced that this new Cloverfield movie that had just been announced was being released in a mere two months. Not only did this create excitement in place of the usual delayed gratification (how many times have you seen a great trailer and thought “ooh I want to see that!” only to have the end of the ad tell you it opens “summer of next year”) but it allowed the film to be relatively unspoiled by movie websites before release. Finally, like his predecessor Rod Serling, J.J. Abrams announced that this Cloverfield would be related to the prior film only thematically, and he intended, if things went well, to continue a series of anthology Cloverfield films in the spirit of The Twilight Zone. In that respect, and in many others, Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane is a smart sci-fi thriller worthy of Rod Serling’s legacy.
The set up is so simple it could easily be an episode of The Twilight Zone or a Broadway stage play: discontent young woman Michelle (the amazing Mary Elizabeth Winstead) leaves her home and fiancé behind and drives wherever the road takes her, when a sudden accident causes her to lose control of her vehicle. She wakes up in a strange, underground bunker, attached to an IV and chained to the wall, and told by her captor Howard (a career best John Goodman) that the world has collapsed up top, the air has been rendered unbreathable, and that she should get used to the idea of living with him for possibly years. Sensing Howard’s mental instability, Michelle comes upon the one other resident of the bunker, Emmet (a solid John Gallagher Jr.) and expects to hear that he’s been kidnapped too, given his broken arm. He gently explains that Howard is telling the truth, and that his injury was not gained from Howard abducting him to the bunker but rather from trying like mad to get in. From there, the tension never lets up for a second, as Michelle’s situation becomes ever more complex and dangerous. That’s as far as I’ll go when it comes to plot details, for just like any given Twilight Zone episode, half the fun is genuinely not knowing what’s to come next. However, I will say that the script written by Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken (with an assist from Whiplash wunderkind Damian Chazelle) reminded me most of Serling’s I Shot An Arrow Into The Sky, an episode of The Twilight Zone about a group of astronauts stranded on a desolate world and not knowing if they may be all there is, or if other people — or things — lie in wait ahead.
The script may also be one of the tightest in years (the only other feature that comes to mind that so cleverly works in a similar fashion is Alex Garland’s Ex Machina from last year). Elements of both character and incident are introduced and paid off so fluidly that, like any good magic trick, you may not quite know how they did it, but you’re jumping up and down in your seat nonetheless. If there is a bump in the road, it’s the film’s finale, which I don’t want to talk about in detail here, suffice to say it both feels like it belongs in a different movie and yet is ridiculously entertaining and cathartic in and of itself. The connective tissue that holds it together really belongs to Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who does a phenomenal job as this decade’s Ellen Ripley (or Sarah Connor, take your pick), an action heroine whose strength and intelligence is remarkably consistent in an absolutely believable way. Director Trachtenberg backs her up every step of the way, making a well paced and gorgeous looking film without resorting to any flashy or showy techniques. He keeps revealing new spaces in a cramped bunker with his camera, always finds new angles with which to showcase the actors, and never settles for a static, dull shot. To watch this movie in IMAX is to appreciate professional film cinematography (props to DoP Jeff Cutter as well, of course), not to just wait for the next explosion or expansive vista from other IMAX blockbusters.
There are so many other elements I could go on about, including Bear McCreary’s Bernard Herrmann meets Danny Elfman score that adds a layer of excitement and intrigue whenever it plays, to the multilayered performance of John Goodman, to the cheeky use of oldies songs in a pair of key montages. I’m in love with this film, and if you’re a lover of smart science fiction that’s led by ideas, story, and character, you will be too. If you’re a fan of the first Cloverfield, don’t expect that movie’s monster to show up, but do expect surprises. You’ll see that, instead of a continuity tied sequel, the name Cloverfield with this film has become a signifier for a brand of tale told with intelligence and innovation, as The Twilight Zone did before it. So don’t wait, go, that’s the signpost up ahead — next stop, 10 Cloverfield Lane.
This article originally appeared on Pixcelation.com on Mar. 14th, 2016.