Though directed by newcomer Dan Trachtenberg, and written by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle, 10 Cloverfield Lane explicitly bears the stamp of co-producer J.J. Abrams. Abrams, of course, is the filmmaker who’s made a career out of remaking other properties either officially or unofficially, grinding a variety of high concepts down together into a series of bland and inoffensive hot dogs, which are then sold via a “mystery box” marketing strategy that invites people to solve puzzles, parsing information that will allow them to laugh knowingly at a meaningless in-joke within the film upon its release. These shrewd promotions play on viewers’ contemporary obsession with “spoilers,” obscuring the true secret of the products they push: that there’s little to them underneath the over-compensating smoke and mirrors.
10 Cloverfield Lane, for instance, has nothing to do with Cloverfield, the monster movie that Abrams produced in 2008, save for a few glancing allusions. The similarity of the titles is meant to cast mystery over the new film, stoking anticipation for what might otherwise be correctly seen as a well-oiled but mediocre off-season time killer. The film hits its expositional narrative marks and nothing else; there’s no poetry or grace notes, because such things might be misunderstood or resented by someone in the mass audience. The legacy of Syd Field’s screenwriting manual hangs over 10 Cloverfield Lane, as it does all of Abrams’s productions, which never even accidentally cast a whiff of subtext or authorial personality. This purposefully contrived anonymity is their authorial personality.
Each scene in this film serves an obvious and mechanical structural purpose. When Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) concedes to a new acquaintance, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), that she’s always run away from things, we don’t feel as if something personal or specific is being imparted. We understand that Michelle’s “arc” is being introduced, and that it will be paid off in the end. Not to mention that this arc, which amounts to platitudes about standing up for yourself, is the most overused story device in American pop films. The opening scene is initially promising, as it’s strikingly absent of dialogue, following Michelle, largely in close-ups of her face, as she has an obviously unpleasant conversation with a boyfriend on the phone, fleeing to her car and driving somewhere in the rural countryside. But this stylization, of omitting an expositional argument to linger on the protagonist in flight, proves pointless, as it suggests an interrogation of the character that never arises.
10 Cloverfield Lane’s characters, like those in all Abrams productions, are the flimsiest and most generic of types. Michelle is a plucky can-do warrior, sexy in a fashion that, by Hollywood standards, rates as non-threatening or “relatable.” The many lingering close-ups of her buttocks in tight jeans and underwear are meant to be counterpointed by the assertion that she’s ludicrously inventive and invincible, in the manner of Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which is Hollywood’s new condescending tip of the hat toward “progressive” gender politics. The filmmakers are so busy “empowering” Michelle that they neglect to explore the considerable emotional turmoil of her situation, as they clearly see the dialogue-free opening as a shortcut to get all their homework, i.e. creating actual dramatic resonance, over with quickly. Meanwhile, Emmett is a prototypical slacker doof who’s understandably worshipful of Michelle, existing only so that she has someone with whom to discuss the specifics of the film’s high concept.
For Michelle and Emmett are stuck in an elaborate underground bomb shelter with its architect, Howard (John Goodman), who insists the above world is uninhabitable due to an attack that the film establishes so vaguely as to obviously be setting up a twist. Goodman’s melancholic, physically tactile performance is the best thing about the film, but Trachtenberg doesn’t allow the actor to transcend the contraption at large, as he keeps things moving, hitting beat after formulaic beat with dull proficiency. And it’s remarkable that the notion of a gruff, emotionally wounded man, from the baby boomer generation, setting up—spoiler!—a domicile with his millennial co-inhabitants, who’re really his prisoners, is somehow able to exude no eccentricity, neuroses, or satirical implications. This is the Abrams touch in action.
It never occurs to the filmmakers to allow the central relationship between Michelle, Emmett, and Howard, which is superficially reminiscent of the character dynamics offered by vastly richer genre films such as Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, to flower and guide the narrative into uncharted places. We learn nothing about them that doesn’t reductively contribute to the solution of the film’s anticlimactic mystery. Abrams has said that his favorite kind of movie is one with a B story that’s mounted on an A scale, but, in this case, such a fusion offers a worst of both worlds. “A” films are rarely allowed to have the exhilarating, free-associational rough edges of a great B movie, and so a combination of the two often renders something that abounds in stereotype and demographic-pandering polish. 10 Cloverfield Lane will almost immediately evaporate from the mind, before Abrams commences in selling you the same thing all over again.