Note: This review may contain spoilers about the nature of the movie. Proceed with caution if you want everything to remain a secret.
J.J. Abrams is the Sorcerer's Apprentice of marketing. He seizes campaigns like a magic wand, bewitching his films with secrecy and hype. His powers worked for 2008's mysteriously named Cloverfield, which even generated fan theories about its inscrutable title (the true story of the name is not that exciting). He hid the monster in Super 8 to make people buy tickets to see if it was cool. (It wasn't.) Most brilliantly, Star Wars: The Force Awakens trickled out trailers without revealing a drop of the plot. In fact, the commercials turned out to be more creative than the script.
Yet the audience — his marching broomsticks — sometimes turns against its master, especially when his spells are sloppy. Take Star Trek Into Darkness, for which Abrams quarantined the first-act reveal that Benedict Cumberbatch was playing fan favorite Khan. A Khan showdown would sell tickets. Instead, Abrams's pointless charade probably cost the film millions.
10 Cloverfield Lane [Note: It's produced by Paramount, which is a corporate sibling of MTV News.] is a decent thriller that would have been delightful if J.J. Abrams had never touched it at all. Before its Abrams-ification, it was a low-budget spec script called The Cellar penned by writers Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken. The Cellar is about a woman, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who wakes up in a bunker ruled by a conspiracy nut named Howard (John Goodman). Howard claims he's saved her life, and his half-wit farmhand Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) agrees. The outdoor air is contaminated — perhaps even poisoned by Martians. She has to gamble: live with a maybe-madman, or escape and risk death. Her dilemma becomes ours. Do we cheer when Michelle conks Howard on the head and grabs for his keys? Or do we scream, "Stop, you moron — stay inside!"
That's a hell of a hook. Ambitious young filmmakers could have shot it on the cheap in one room. But cheap movies come out every day — nearly 20 low-budget films get released each week — and no one might have ever seen it.
And so The Cellar sold to J.J. Abrams, who sprung for a great cast, a couple of CGI monsters, and an advertising budget so big it couldn't be ignored. He tapped commercials director Dan Trachtenberg to direct and Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) to polish the script. Everyone involved took a vow of silence until Abrams announced the film's existence two months ago, spinning it into a surprise event. Compare that to The Force Awakens''s 38 months of scrutiny.
It would have worked, too, without Abrams's marketing mistake. In January, he announced that the movie would be called 10 Cloverfield Lane -- a direct nod to his $170 million space monster blockbuster; a "spiritual successor." Great publicity, dumb move. The title alone is a spoiler. We've seen what's out there, watched it smash Manhattan and burst Lizzy Caplan's stomach. Forget wondering if Howard is insane. Now, we suspect the madman is probably right before the movie even starts.
Without the shivery thrill of suspense, we also spend the whole movie trapped in an airless box. The only jolts come from noisy jump-scares. While Michelle schemes to figure out what we already know, our attention drifts. We notice the spot-on set design with its cheap silk sunflowers, Bible Pictionary, and cartoon duck shower curtain — suspiciously feminine touches that are important to file away. We'll savor the Costco pantry stocked with Fruit by the Foot and stump-size tins of crackers. And we notice the script's slipshod mistakes -- like why would a 300-pound survivalist put his crucial filtration system in a room only accessible by a skinny air shaft?
10 Cloverfield Lane has its pleasures. Emmett is a charming moron. Winstead's Michelle is quick and smart, a MacGyver in chipped nail polish, which the film fixates on to show the passage of time. In her first scene, she dumps her fiancé by fleeing their apartment. She leaves her engagement ring and takes the scotch; this heartbreaker has her own priorities. Goodman is introduced belly-first, his girth blocking the door to Michelle's cell. Before we see his face, we see his gun. Point made: She's not getting past this guy without a fight.
Winstead and Goodman are great actors, but Trachtenberg uses them all wrong. 10 Cloverfield Lane could have salvaged its spoiled reveal by shifting our loyalties between them from scene to scene and letting us see Michelle through Howard's eyes: as an ungrateful brat who could get them all killed. Yet Goodman is never allowed empathy, even though he deserves it. The man might be a new David Koresh, but he is sharing his food with two strangers. All he asks is that they lend a hand with cooking, pee according to his plumbing schedule, and help him solve a puzzle or two. When he claims, "I know I sound like a sensible guy," we're meant to snigger. But, c'mon, his doomsday bunker is immaculate. There's a glimmer of hurt pride in Goodman's eyes — don't these millennials appreciate his eco-toilet? — but even in those moments, the film plays him like a tyrant. Think Kim Jong-un crying to James Franco about his daddy.
Eventually, 10 Cloverfield Lane presents a dilemma we can't immediately answer. What's better: the villain you know, or the danger you don't? It rushes the answer before we get a chance to decide. Yet in a way, that's the question Abrams has been asking himself his entire career. He has always bet on the mystery monster. For 10 Cloverfield Lane, he placed his chips on a known invader. Both ways, he has gambled and lost. Time to scrap his belabored marketing tricks and take Howard's advice: "Just hang loose."