I'd like to apologize to those who were sitting next to me for my aggressive popcorn munching during "10 Cloverfield Lane," the new J.J. Abrams-produced nail-biter starring a creepier John Goodman than you've ever seen (and that's saying something.)
You see, the popcorn was a surrogate for my nails, which I would have bitten off completely had I not had this precious snack at, um, hand. If you're like me, which is to say easily creeped out by unbearable tension and constant fear, not to mention intense claustrophobia, then I strongly suggest you either bring your own snacks, an old sweatshirt or a good friend's arm to chew on.
A couple things to get out of the way: First, this film, directed by Dan Trachtenberg, is not a sequel to the 2008 Abrams-produced "Cloverfield," though it does share a similar vibe, not to mention part of a title — which hints at a franchise (Abrams has mentioned a "bigger plan.") And a disclaimer: We won't reveal the end here in any way, but we WILL have to say what we THINK of the ending. If even that feels like a spoiler to you, then feel free to stop reading a few paragraphs early.
Now to the plot. We meet Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, elevating what could be a stock feisty-girl role with intelligence and occasional humor) as she's packing to leave a boyfriend after an unexplained conflict (a famous actor's voice is heard on voicemail). She jumps in her car and heads off. As night falls into inky blackness, we hear references on the radio to an unexplained power surge.
Then there's a car crash, shocking in its intensity — and the opening credits haven't even finished yet.
Michelle awakes in some sort of underground cellar. Worse, she's chained to a wall. With ingenuity, she manages to reach her cellphone. But there's no service.
And then she meets Howard.
Naturally, Michelle thinks Howard (Goodman, in all his imposing girth) is up to something bad. There's that whole chained-to-the-wall thing, plus that huge lock on the heavy metal door of her cell. But, he explains, he's not a threat — he's a savior. Something terrible has happened up there, outside. It might be chemical, might be nuclear, might be something else. But she's the lucky one. She's been saved.
Soon, a third character is introduced: An amiable neighbor, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who insists he hurt his arm not trying to escape from Howard but trying to get IN; he supports Howard's story of a catastrophic attack. And the three settle in for a taut, well-choreographed chamber play down in the bunker.
This is the bulk of the movie, and the best of it: The fraught dance between these three characters, with their shifting allegiances and a power dynamic that never seems clear. Which one of them is lying? Or is everyone telling the truth? Who's the enemy, and are they outside or underground?
Smartly, Trachtenberg and the screenwriters (Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle of "Whiplash") find a way to break the tension — ever so briefly — with a bit of humor (watch for a random Santa Claus reference) and a bit of music, too. You'll probably laugh, as I did, when you realize the soundtrack is playing "I Think We're Alone Now." For a minute we forget the dangers that (might) lurk, both outside and in.
But the dance will eventually have to end. Trachtenberg scares the wits out of us a few times, and then he launches into a climax that will have many talking — though I found it somewhat disappointing and frustratingly baffling. But you might love it.
Just remember to bring something to chew on.
"10 Cloverfield Lane," a Paramount Pictures release, has been rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America "for thematic material including frightening sequences of threat with some violence, and brief language." Running time: 103 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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