[This is a film it's very hard to talk about at all without spoiling at least the premise and the basic setup, but this review does its level best not to go beyond that point.]
"What does this have to do with Cloverfield?"
Putting that question out of your mind during 10 Cloverfield Lane is ignoring the elephant in the room, but everything about the film, from its out-of-the-blue viral campaign to its thrilling commitment to misdirection, makes it possible. Some connections eventually emerge, as might be expected from one of producer J.J. Abrams' puzzlebox narratives, but 10 Cloverfield Lane is not another found-footage War of the Worlds scenario. And it doesn't take place in the wide-open spaces of a city under siege, either. For the longest time, it appears that the Cloverfield franchise is united mainly by the aesthetic principle of offscreen space -- not the catchiest hook, but an enormously effective one.
The obvious reason the two films connect so thinly is that 10 Cloverfield Lane wasn't originally conceived as a sort-of sequel, but retrofitted like the chainsaw Bruce Campbell attaches to his arm in Evil Dead II. In sharp contrast to the shaky-cam of Cloverfield, first-time director Dan Trachtenberg gives the opening scenes a classic Hitchcockian quality, nodding specifically to Janet Leigh's dash out of town in Psycho and laying on a muscular score (by Bear McCreary) in homage to Bernard Herrmann. Also like Hitchcock, the story takes a decisive turn once a car peels off the road.
That car belongs to Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a Louisiana woman who's first shown hastily packing her things in a suitcase and a box, and rushing out of her apartment, leaving her wedding ring behind. Shortly after an evening pitstop for fuel, Michelle gets in a car accident that sends her careening down an embankment. When she awakens, she finds herself hooked to an IV drip in an unadorned cement bunker with her leg handcuffed to a pipe. Before she can improvise her way out of trouble, her captor comes thundering through the door. His name is Howard (John Goodman), he explains, and contrary to appearances, he saved Michelle from the wreck and is currently protecting her from threats unknown.
There's reason to believe he's right. Howard claims that after the accident, there was a chemical attack that rendered the air unbreathable, and being the cheerful paranoiac he is, he'd built an underground shelter for just such an occasion. Along with a third resident named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), the two of them have enough supplies to wait out the apocalypse for a year or two, when the toxicity has presumably passed. Howard is a disturbing guy who lords over Michelle and Emmett like a belligerent father, but any attempt to escape risks the likelihood of instant death the moment they peek their heads above ground.
All this may sound like the set-up to an M. Night Shyamalan twist, and certainly 10 Cloverfield Lane does have the obligation to pay off its Twilight Zone premise. But Trachtenberg and his screenwriters, Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken, take advantage of the shelter's tight quarters, which contribute to the expected pressure-cooker atmosphere of suspicion and hostility but also open up the punch-drunk comedy of people going mad with boredom. Howard may be a controlling monster, but he's got a kick-ass jukebox and he's always up for board games or late-night viewings of Pretty In Pink on VHS. (Just be sure to compliment him on his spaghetti.)
Goodman's ability to vacillate between regular-guy jocularity and Biblical fury has made him a Coen brothers favorite since Barton Fink, and his performance helps modulate the film's stomach-clenching tonal shifts. But Winstead is every bit as good as the frightened yet resourceful heroine, who has to make difficult decisions about if, when, and how to act, and validate the serpentine logic of the script. Their battle of wills adds a substance to 10 Cloverfield Lane that the improvising ninnies of the original Cloverfield couldn't muster, despite its novel perspective on the monster movie. The gimmickry eventually arrives -- and, god help us, the Cloverfield "mythology" -- but by then, the film has succeeded thoroughly on its own terms.