April 7 2016 11:59 AM

‘10 Cloverfield Lane’ thrills, but ultimately disappoints


THURSDAY, April 7 — “10 Cloverfield Lane” is a mess of contradictions and ambitious almost to a fault — those aren’t necessarily bad characteristics. I’d much rather have a film whose reach exceeded its grasp than a film that doesn’t reach at all. While its ambitions and all-over-the-place feel do make for an interesting and ultimately enjoyable movie, this film, like a lot of producer J.J. Abrams’ projects, ultimately felt like a letdown.

One thing I do love about this movie is that it makes the job of plot summarizing pretty easy. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has just left her long-term boyfriend. We don’t know why, but we don’t really need to. As she makes her way down the highway, she gets into a car accident and wakes up in what is essentially a dungeon, chained to a pipe on the wall with an IV hooked up to her arm. She soon finds she’s under the watchful eye of Howard (John Goodman), the owner of the underground doomsday shelter. He claims to have saved her life.

They share the shelter with a young man named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) and —going any further would spoil the plot a bit too much, and part of the fun of this kind of movie is watching the mystery unravel. See, what’d I tell you? Easy, right? Suffice to say, if you’re familiar with J.J. Abrams’ previous work (“Lost,” “Alias,” “Super 8,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” etc.), you already know that there are plenty of twists and turns from there.

And that is where the contradictions start. Abrams is only a producer on this film, not its writer or director. So is it fair to call this film his? I think so. Director Dan Trachtenberg is essentially a stand-in for Abrams, hired on the strength of his admittedly impressive fan film based on the “Portal” video game franchise. He’s more like a working craftsman who makes the product for the guys with the big ideas. That may seem unfair, but between the shaky camera, blue-tinted lighting, frenetic editing and heavy-handedly suspenseful music, Trachtenberg apes Abrams’ own style to such an extent that this film could have been directed by anyone. Nothing distinguishes this as “a Dan Trachtenberg film.”

But there’s plenty that establishes this as “a J.J. Abrams” film.” Like I previously mentioned, there are plenty of plot twists and excitement. Most of Abrams previous works have at least elements of thrillers, even if they aren’t outright thrillers. The big thing that distinguishes Abrams’ projects, though, is what he calls his “mystery box” approach to storytelling: an intriguing premise where just enough information is kept from the audience to strings us along and keeps us engaged. It’s a pretty standard technique in suspense/thriller fiction, not really unique to Abrams, but he excels at it. He excels at making the box, at least. It’s when he opens the box that he runs into problems.

Abrams is great at creating mystery and suspense, but not at following up on it and giving us a satisfying reveal. It always leaves us scratching our heads, wanting more, prompting shrugs rather than awe. His openings are intriguing, but his middle sections feel like they’re on autopilot and the final acts often feel tacked on. That certainly applies here. The final act of “10 Cloverfield” turns what was initially a tense, interesting thriller about a woman held captive — or is she? — into … something else. Again, I won’t spoil anything. But Abrams fans also know he has a devotion to another genre: sci-fi. That’s where things get confusing. But also where they get interesting.

It sounds like I’m being too negative, so lets focus on the film’s virtues. For one, the performances are good — especially since there are really only three to speak of. Gallagher is fine and likeable as Emmett. Winstead is solid as Michelle, but she never really stands out. This isn’t really her fault though; it’s the script’s. She gets very little to do besides be terrified or grittily determined. There’s no real nuance or subjectivity to her character, and as a result, both her performance and the film suffer.

There are so many ways in which the filmmakers are trying to make this movie something different, something more than your typical thriller. You know what would have helped with that? Make your female lead three-dimensional, not an audience surrogate. Give her subjectivity, a voice and a point of view. Make her a human being, not just the helpless, victimized girl that is so common and banal in horror and suspense films. Winstead should be better than she is here, but the film does her and Michelle a disservice.

The real standout here, as he is in so many roles, is Goodman. He brilliantly but subtly imbues what could have been another clichéd, domineering villain man with anxiety, paranoia and humanity. Honestly, Goodman is what pulls the film together, giving it some much needed menace and thematic potency. Howard represents a specific kind of man that has recently come to prominence in America, but has always been lurking in the shadows, waiting for validation and the right time to announce himself and take cultural prominence. He is, in a sense, the most primitive of human beings, solely focused on survival, always on the lookout for a threat. He still thinks humans are essentially animals who should only be concerned for safety and creating offspring. This turns him into a kind of animal, with all the violence and possessive sexism that implies.

The film treats this archetype critically, like the villain that he is. Based off this and where Michelle ends up at the films conclusion (again, no spoilers), the movie is undoubtedly trying to espouse a kind of feminism, showing how resourceful, brave and powerful women can be in the face of that type of man, the type of men who have come dominate American culture. But the fact that the most complex character in the film is still the chauvinistic male villain prevents the film from reaching its feminist goals. In many ways, we’re made to understand Howard better than Michelle. It’s as if the film’s idea of gender equality is pumping its fist and shouting “Girl power!” while Michelle does some plucky MacGyver-meets-“Mission: Impossible” escape tactics — but simultaneously denying her any semblance of individuality.

Abrams is one of many filmmakers today who seems indebted to a style of Hollywood filmmaking prominent in the late-1970s through the ‘80s, the kind of films perfected by James Cameron, George Lucas and (especially) Steven Spielberg. Movies where the female love interest was just as tough and plucky as the male hero. These women, however, lacked any interiority. “10 Cloverfield Lane” seems only to have moved this secondary character to the center of the film without letting her evolve or develop. Someone should let Abrams and co. know that the ‘80s are over and both feminism and cinema has moved on, — their goals have changed and their vision expanded.

And so we come back to where we began this review. This film is ambitious, but it’s also a mess. It contradicts itself when it matters most, preventing it from reaching its ambitions. The film wants to be more, something great, something that enters the collective imagination, like a Spielberg film. In the end, it’s just another Hollywood thriller. It has a rather surprising final act and a plot that makes more sense than most, but it’s ultimately another Abrams movie.

To many of you, that’s enough to make it worth the price of admission. It certainly doesn’t mean the film is bad. But to me, it means that it’s a fun popcorn flick. If you’ve got nothing else to do, nothing else in the theaters looks good or you’re just in the mood for a white-knuckle thriller with some sci-fi twists, by all means, check it out. Just don’t expect to see something you’ve never seen before.