10 Cloverfield Lane

★★★ ½
Opening Friday, March 11

The crazy survivalist just might be right, but he’s still crazy. That’s the lesson of 10 Cloverfield Lane, a film that begins like a prequel to Room and ends like a sequel to Alien. Or, well, Cloverfield.

A gripping cold open introduces Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a Louisiana seamstress sideswiped off the roadway while fleeing her estranged husband (a disembodied Bradley Cooper) and her presumably dispirited life. She awakes with an injured leg and an IV in her arm, chained to a water pipe in a barren concrete bunker. Its armed proprietor is Howard (John Goodman), a tightly wound survivalist who constructed the well-stocked shelter for the end times, which he says have arrived. Howard tells Michelle that he rescued her from the wreck just before the atmosphere was poisoned, rendered uninhabitable by some unknown phenomenon.

10 Cloverfield Lane is mostly a three-person chamber piece, rounded out by Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a local wiseacre who fought his way into Howard’s panic cellar when strange flashes of light began illuminating the sky. Locked underground for an indefinite time, the trio eventually settles into a humdrum everyday routine of cooking, board games, and watching bad movies

The narrative, starting with the veracity of Howard’s apocalyptic claims, never strays far from his ultimate motives. Gradual discoveries made by Michelle and Emmett convince them that Howard’s conspiratorial theories about foreign invasion, nuclear holocaust, and alien space-worms (!) are the least worrisome aspects of his psyche.

Producer J.J. Abrams says the film is “a spiritual successor,” but not a sequel, to the popular creature feature Cloverfield, which Abrams also produced. Translation: the filmmakers slapped on the familiar moniker to drive up the box office. Still, director Dan Trachtenberg ably keeps the audience guessing, employing a nimble balance of wit, taut suspense, and claustrophobic foreboding.

The cast is superb, headed by Goodman’s keen blend of canniness, slow-burning menace, and bombastic paranoia. The sound mixing is jarring and effective. The irony-filled soundtrack includes “I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tommy James & the Shondells, and a sequence where Howard shimmies to The Exciters’ 1963 hit “Tell Him”: “Tell him that you’re never gonna leave him/ Tell him that you’re always gonna love him/ Tell him, tell him, tell him, tell him right now.”

The quaint design of Howard’s bunker—adorned with fake flowers, jigsaw puzzles, and a dining table he claims is “a family heirloom”—betrays a fading Ozzie and Harriet ideal. Indeed, one could legitimately view 10 Cloverfield Lane as an allegory for the creep from Eisenhower peacetime to the Red Scare, and on through today’s post-9/11 dread. The tonally incongruous denouement smacks of the same market forces that concocted the title. But the film succeeds as a futuristic capper to a madcap lesson about how monsters come in many different forms.

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