Bad Robot's Cloverfield turned out to be little more than a serviceable found-footage monster movie built around a Statue of Liberty-sized kaiju tearing through Manhattan, but the mysteries and speculation surrounding its prolonged viral marketing campaign were something to behold. An enigmatic trailer without a title, social-media pages for the characters, and websites built around the fictional brands found in the film created a long line of breadcrumbs for interested parties -- many of whom were already caught up in the puzzle-solving of LOST's missing pieces -- to follow until its release. Dan Tractenberg's 10 Cloverfield Lane, a parallel spinoff set in the same universe, does almost the exact opposite, where instead of a year of promotional nudges and winks, a surprise trailer emerged mere months before the film was slated to arrive in theaters. The difference in approaches to the marketing reflects the differences between the films themselves: 10 Cloverfield Lane keeps its scale small and its intentions cerebral, producing a well-crafted paranoia thriller with apocalyptic science-fiction in its veins.
Instead of jarring, loud interruptions made up of shaky-camera found footage, 10 Cloverfield Lane maintains a steady visual focus while depicting a group of survivors holed up in a fallout shelter following a catastrophic event. Overseeing the bunker is Howard Stambler (John Goodman), a controlling and intimidating ex-military man who forces his two guests, Michelle and Emmitt, to adhere to his rules if they're going to stick around -- and they're going to stick around, whether they want to or not. Michelle, injured and fresh off a marital breakup, grows suspicious and fearful of Howard's motives and contemplates the truth behind the hazardous state of the world above ground. Emmitt, who knew Howard before the event, exhibits less concern due to Howard's willingness to let him wait out the lingering effects of the disaster. There's one constant among them: the only information they're going by is Howard's deduction about the state of the toxic atmosphere, and the length in which they'll have to stay underground before everything's safe.
At first, 10 Cloverfield Lane began as a project called "The Cellar" that didn't have anything to do with Bad Robot's universe, something that makes plenty of sense considering the ambiguous, paranoid atmosphere and post-apocalyptic theorizing going on between the bunker's residents. Attaching it to Cloverfield adds an intriguing -- if unnecessary -- layer to the experience, though, that takes on different meanings depending on whether someone does or doesn't know about the first film's world-building. Without that context, mystery and suspicion loom over Howard's authoritative explanations about the global state of affairs, where he spins a cogent but ominous tale of warfare, weapons of mass destruction, and hopelessness for anyone who isn't in a bunker like his. Knowing the reality of what's going on in New York, on the other hand, replaces some of that vagueness with analysis of the things Howard's saying about the dangers and the fallout. 10 Cloverfield Lane works splendidly on its own regardless, and it's largely because of what it sets out to do with the murkiness of "the truth".
Thus, the bulk of 10 Cloverfield Lane occurs within the confined, shaky corridors of Howard's mildly homey bunker away from the toxic atmosphere, adorned with minimal creature comforts that make the power surges and intermittent tremors in the ground easier for its inhabitants to bear. Smart, polished set design squeezes the most that it can out of the film's modest budget, creating a space that really feels like a fallout shelter designed with years of isolation in mind, with just enough entertainment around -- board games, reading material, movies -- to keep the metal box from seeming like a spruced-up prison. Combined with Bear McCreary's beautifully off-kilter score and John Cutter's cinematography that relishes the bunker's dim lighting and sunken depth, 10 Cloverfield Lane generates a uniquely alarming mood as Michelle and Emmitt adjust to their new surroundings, persuading those watching to consider whether their living conditions may or may not be as they seem.
The effectiveness of 10 Cloverfield Lane swings on the complexity of Howard's nature, placing the bulk of the pressure on John Goodman's burly shoulders. Much like his character's self-designated call to duty, Goodman's up to the task, producing an understandably fearful individual with both sympathetic and unnerving personality traits. Director Tractenberg wants those watching to be uncertain about what Howard wants and why he's so adamant about his rules, and Goodman's fluctuations in temperament -- volatile and controlling in one moment, concerned and misunderstood in another -- are what keep those motivations in a compelling state of flux throughout. Mary Elizabeth Winstead embodies the wide-eyed, fraught, yet crafty victim similarly to how she does in The Thing, while John Gallagher musters a convincingly earnest Louisiana laborer who's more easily persuaded than Michelle, both of whom capably adjust to Howard's dominant flare-ups and seemingly good-intended restriction of freedom. Neither possess very deep character traits, but that's not required for the roles they fill.
Ominous philosophical small-talk, periodic flickers of light and earthen rumbles, and scattered clues about Howard's true nature -- as well as how Michelle came to live in the bunker -- all form into a mystery worth unraveling in 10 Cloverfield Lane, posing questions about trust and lesser evils in the process. These are carefully constructed diversions from director Tracterberg's ultimate intentions, though, which manifest in a hazardous and explosive final act, revealing precisely how this tense underground psychological thriller connects with Bad Robot's pseudo-kaiju flick from nearly a decade prior. Saying any more than that, vague as it may be, borders on spoiler territory, and the surprises waiting on the other side of the door are worth preserving for the exhilarating conclusion telegraphed by Tractenberg. While it may not have been originally devised with this purpose in mind, 10 Cloverfield Lane illustrates what's possible when a sci-fi spinoff is driven by contained, clever writing that'd succeed regardless of its recognizable namesake.
Partial-coverage slipcovers aren't uncommon outside the US, especially with limited-edition steelbooks in Asia, but there aren't too many North American Blu-ray releases that have come with 'em. 10 Cloverfield Lane arrives with one, though, a two-thirds sized slipcover that features the faces of John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead that isn't shown on the more streamlined cover artwork underneath. The interior is standard procedure for Paramount, though: both Blu-ray and DVD presentations have been included in the two-disc set, while an Ultraviolet Digital Copy Slip covers the left-side disc.
Video and Audio:
10 Cloverfield Lane has a handful of stretches that occur above ground, but the bulk of the story relies on the atmosphere of the fluorescent lighting, the metallic and concrete infrastructure, and the general claustrophobia of Howard's fallout shelter. That doesn't prevent the Red EPIC Dragon-shot cinematography from relishing unique plays on depth of field, camera angles, and texture, though, and Paramount's 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC digital transfer brilliantly carries over every nuance found within. Details in John Goodman's stubbly close-ups and in the textiles of things like shower curtains, crutches, stairs, and lampshades are impeccably sharp, while the soft glow of a jukebox and the snapped-together piece of a jigsaw puzzle offer hints of color in the stark surroundings. Black levels are divine and keep all details visible within, though some faint digital/compression noise gives higher-contrast lighting some roughness. Skin tones are appropriately warm, responding to the different shades of warm and cool lighting throughout the bunker, and the moment of vigorous action keep every nuance and pixel clearly under control. Very well done.
But, man, does the Dolby Atmos track -- which downscales to a phenomenal 7.1 Dolby TrueHD presentation -- really deliver a punch, overshadowing the capable digital transfer. Sonic atmosphere is vital to keeping the film's intentions in check, and the high-def presentation of the rattling walls, the buzzing lights, and the rumbles of activity going on above ground push the limit with the full surround stage wherever it's necessary. The harsh clanking of metal rings on metal bars and the slam of an ominous locking door result in punchy higher-end clarity, spreading capably across the front channels. Much of 10 Cloverfield Lane hinges on tense scenes driven by impassioned dialogue, though, interrupted by slamming fists and rumbling in the air for effect, which sustains an articulate, natural balance throughout -- whether Bear McCreary's emotive scoring is present in the background or not. Despite taking place largely in the space of an underground bunker, there's a lot of direct and atmospheric activity going on in 10 Cloverfield Lane, and it makes for a potent aural experience. French, Spanish, Portuguese, and English Descriptive 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks and subtitles are available.
Audio Commentary with Dan Tractenberg and J.J. Abrams:
Director Dan Tractenberg is all enthusiasm when it comes to participating in his first commentary, with producer J.J. Abrams guiding the discussion with nudges and prods toward topics that the audience would find interesting. They discussed the non-verbal, intimate aspects of the film's tone and storytelling, making the most of their "lo-fi" filmmaking for grand results, how the unveiling mystery has a little something to do with videogame-style narratives, and the usual suspects in terms of minor details: necessary digital effects, the intentional color choice for a wall, the meaning behind a lightbulb, and landing on ambiguous takes for Howard's character. It's a tad congratulatory in tone toward Abrams, feels somewhat repetitive as it goes forward, and Tractenberg's newness to the commentary format can certainly be felt, but the discussion about finding the right tone with Howard's menacing attitude and how each scene has some kind of unique thought put into it -- referencing Kill Bill, Rosemary's Baby, and other films -- makes up for the initial ungainliness.
Paramount have also stitched together a series of seven total Featurettes (34:42, 16x9 HD) that tackle individual topics through the making of 10 Cloverfield Lane, cobbling together intimate interviews with the cast and crew (Tratenberg, Abrams, actors Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman, cinematographer John Cutter, and others) as they discuss the process. After Cloverfield Too tackles the general discussion about the individual players, the rest of the featurettes -- titled Bunker Mentality, Duck and Cover, Spin-Off, Kelvin Optical, Fine Tuned, and End of Story -- elaborate upon the nitty-gritty of constructing the film, from the origin of where Howard's head was at while building his bunker to other production details about protective gear, doing as much in-camera effects as possible, and the "secret" production wing of Bad Robot. And there's also an entire segment devoted to Bear McCreary's work with the score, which offers splendid insights into his style and giving the film a "broader" feel.
A surprise both in the stealthiness of its release and in the vigor of its indie sci-fi aims, 10 Cloverfield Lane tells a confined, harrowing story within the same relative universe as that of Bad Robot's monster-disaster movie. This one's quite different, though. Driven by an ambiguous yet menacing performance from John Goodman, a story revolving around apocalyptic fear and dangerous exertion of control takes shape within an enclosed fallout shelter, generating relentlessly absorbing tension and grim ponderings about whether to trust the doomsday stories told by someone whom you cannot fully trust. Director Dan Tractenberg transforms the small scale of the scenario into a thematically and emotionally robust escalation of tension, mounting to a wild finale befitting the Bad Robot pedigree. Paramount's Blu-ray looks and sounds tremendous, and arrives with a solid commentary and about thirty minutes of insightful featurettes. Highly Recommended.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site