Imagine being trapped in an underground bunker by John Goodman who claims the air outside will kill you. Our damsel-in-distress encounters this appalling predicament in first-time director Dan Trachtenberg’s “10 Cloverfield Lane” (* OUT OF ****) after she awakens from a violent car crash. Worse, she finds herself hooked up to an I.V. drip, her injured right knee chained to a cinder block wall, and ‘no service’ on her cell phone. Reportedly, producer J.J. Abrams has called Trachtenberg’s mild R-rated chiller “the spiritual successor to “Cloverfield.” Does anybody remember that mediocre monster thriller? The 2008 sci-fi saga “Cloverfield,” produced for $25 million, made over $170 million at the box office. This abominable monster on the rampage opus told its tale by means of “found footage” recovered from a camcorder. Never did we ever get a clear picture of the gargantuan that transformed Manhattan into a junkyard. Comparatively, “10 Cloverfield Lane” is a one quarter “Cloverfield” sequel with a lot of time squandered on a formulaic hostage thriller. Synthesize the “Room” with “War of the Worlds,” and you’ve got the gist of the Josh Campbell & Matthew Stuecken screenplay. If you’re looking for a full-blown sequel to “Cloverfield,” you’re going to be disappointed. If you looking for two short films edited together, you might like “10 Cloverfield Lane.” Audiences that want to see monsters are going to feel cheated, and audiences that want to see a fresh hostage crisis are going to be bored. An attractive twentysomething gal leaves her boyfriend, packs her stuff, and hits the road. Later, after dark, as she is cruising down the highway, somebody out of nowhere smashes into her and she passes out. We neither know who did it nor what did it.
When poor Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead of “Final Destination 3”) regains consciousness, she finds herself held captive by a hulk of a man. Howard (John Goodman of “Argo”) served in the U.S. Navy, behaves like a survivalist, but has a sense of humor. She struggles to escape, but Howard thwarts her every attempt until the grand finale. At one point, I thought “10 Cloverfield Lane” was going to be an immaculate, brightly illuminated version of “Saw.” For example, after we meet Howard, we discover that he doesn’t seem to be such a bad sort. Apparently, he went out of his way to rescue Michelle and then nurse her back to health. He has built an underground bunker equipped with all the luxuries that one might require to endure a long period isolation from everything above ground except the fresh air that his filtration system keeps clean. Moreover, Howard has taken in another individual for the duration. Country boy Emmett (John Gallagher Jr. of “Jonah Hex”) would have been a track star at a nearby university if he’d gotten on the bus and gone. Instead, he backed out at the last minute. Overall, Emmett turns out to be the most sympathetic character. Roughly three-fourths of the 105 minutes in “10 Cloverfield Lane” takes place underground, and things grow as claustrophobic as they do tiresome. Mind you, rookie director Dan Trachtenberg and his writers have made the two captives smarter than the average victims. The problem is that he keeps these three characters confined for far too long before we discover that Howard is not only a lunatic but also a liar. Howard has no idea what is happening outside, but he warns Michelle and Emmett that harmful chemical fallout awaits them if they venture outside. Michelle hatches an escape plan for Emmett and her to escape confinement. At this point, things take a murderous twist, and our heroine must rely entirely on her own resources to escape with her skin.
Suffice to say, the last quarter hour yields “10 Cloverfield Lane’s” biggest surprise and it has a lot to do with “Cloverfield.” My chief objection to this movie is that I got tired of the drawn out bunker episode. Indeed, suspenseful moments crop up, but some moments don’t make sense. We get acquainted with the three characters, and we begin to see the flaws in nice guy Howard’s character. If you’ve seen one hostage movie, however, you know that nothing ever ends well. Watching “10 Cloverfield Lane” was as bad as watching the 2002 Jodie Foster thriller “Panic Room.” At least “The Panic Room” had some comic relief. Ultimately, as shrewd as the two hostages are in “10 Cloverfield Lane,” nothing about them is charismatic. The writing is above-average, but the story is far too predictable. For example, in one scene, we watch as Michelle is caught between a rock and a hard place. She manages to escape, and she is at the last barrier when a crazy woman with a blood-speckled face begs to be let into the bunker. Howard convinces Michelle that the contaminated outsider will kill them all with her tainted flesh. Michelle relents, and Howard doesn’t chain her up again as he had done earlier.
Of course, once our heroine not only figures out a way to break out of the bunker, but also keep Howard at bay, the rest of “10 Clovenfield Lane” turns into a radically different movie. Relief degenerates into abject terror, and Michelle confronts a predator that makes Howard look like the syndicated Hanna-Barbera purple cartoon hippo character Peter Potamus. In the remaining quarter of an hour, our heroine dispatches this new adversary, and suspense mounts during that final fifteen minutes. Nevertheless, it looks like Trachtenberg and his scenarists were so desperate to slough off the initial 80 to 90 minutes of their grimly realistic, but hopelessly tedious hostage drama that they tried to shoe-horn in an episodic sequel to “Cloverfield.” “Cloverfield” was feculence from fade-in to fade-out, and “10 Cloverfield Lane” appropriates the narrative thread at the last minute to give audiences a cheap shock. Not even an actor as watchable as John Goodman can salvage this monstrous misfire of a movie.
“Your imagination can take you where nothing else can.” Van Roberts