The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


10 Cloverfield Lane

Depending on how you look at it, 10 Cloverfield Lane is either a brilliant piece of marketing or a shameless lie. It was made independently of Matt Reeves' 2008 thriller Cloverfield, under the title Valencia. Then J.J. Abrams, who produced both films, and his team got the idea to draw a connection between them that wasn't initially there. The result is a sort-of pseudo-sequel that, while terrific in many respects, really didn't need and doesn't benefit from the association.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Michelle, a young woman who, in a nifty opening sequence, silently packs up her stuff and moves out on her boyfriend while he's not home. Driving on a winding country road, she gets in an accident and wakes up in an underground bunker owned by a controlling doomsday preparedness freak named Howard (John Goodman). He explains that he rescued her following some sort of chemical attack above ground. The only survivors are the two of them, plus the kindly Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.). Michelle isn't sure she believes Howard, though, especially considering all the rules he insists his two bunker mates live by.

One of the main criticisms of Cloverfield was that the characters got lost amid the chaos. By comparison, 10 Cloverfield Lane (directed by Dan Trachtenberg) is very character-driven. Suspense is generated from watching Michelle attempt to figure out whether Howard just has an edge to his proclaimed benevolence or whether he's hiding a more sinister motivation. She's not quite sure, and neither are we. The movie is very good at convincing you it's one way, then convincing you it's the other, then convincing you it's the first way again. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is outstanding as Michelle, showing how she never allows herself to relax, never allows the seed of doubt to be erased from her mind. John Goodman is also excellent. In his hands, Howard is an enticing mystery a guy who holds his cards close to the vest in an unnerving manner.

Confined space thrillers often have a very strong impact, and 10 Cloverfield Lane is no exception. The interactions between the three characters are sometimes contentious, occasionally comical, and always fascinating. The movie also gets a lot of mileage from the idea of being locked away underground with a person who might possibly be crazy. Even the bunker itself suggests danger; at one point, Michelle has to crawl through a confined air duct to fix something, while Howard helpfully points out that neither he nor Emmett will be able to help her if she gets stuck. These things and others continually up the ante on tension, creating a mood of jittery paranoia. Michelle might not be safe out in the world, but she's not necessarily much safer in the bunker, either.

Everything about 10 Cloverfield Lane is wildly effective, except for the part that actually connects it to Cloverfield. After about 85 minutes of first-rate suspense, the film makes a radical turn that feels completely out of place with everything else. The last 15 minutes are dopey, with an overdose of special effects, a minimum of explanation for what's happening, and a near-complete abandonment of the character elements that have kept us hooked up to this point. It's rare for a movie to shoot itself in the foot so drastically, but that's exactly what 10 Cloverfield Lane does. The Hitchcockian suspense is replaced by something that feels needlessly overblown and awkwardly tacked on. Even worse, a perfectly satisfying ending is bypassed in order to link the movie to Cloverfield.

That most of the picture is so good just makes the ending even more frustrating. It in no way needs to go where it goes, and the fact that it does wraps 10 Cloverfield Lane up on a bum note. Thankfully, the majority of the movie is incredibly strong. Most of the story works magnificently, and the performances from Winstead and Goodman drive it. There's so much to enjoy here that even the dumb finale can't ruin it. Some damage is definitely done, though.

( out of four)

10 Cloverfield Lane is rated PG-13 for thematic material including frightening sequences of threat with some violence, and brief language. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.

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