Viewed in retrospect, 2007's Cloverfield looks very much like an attempt to work out any remaining 9/11 anxieties in the multiplex over a bucket of popcorn. In setting a bunch of kids to film a Godzilla-like attack on Manhattan using their cameraphones, Matt Reeves' film could trade on viewer memories of being in the thick of world-changing events with no immediate sense of the bigger, wider picture; another of the studios' Noughties immersion experiments that was to lead to the widespread adoption of 3D, it also ventured a sensitive nerd's parallel between the fragility of digital images and that of life itself, the surface recordings occasionally giving way - as on a well-worn VHS tape - to sunny relics of the happier time before the fall.
A decade on, and 10 Cloverfield Lane arrives as what we might call a stealth sequel, unmentioned by Paramount until the start of this year - an all but revolutionary tactic in this age of blaring, 24/7 multimedia hype. The film - directed by Dan Trachtenberg from a script worked over by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) - proves sneaky in other ways, too: as the unusual notation of its title teases, it's not the sequel anyone might have been expecting, unfolding far from the big city some time after the events of the original film, reverting to conventional, third-person camera perspectives, and for 80% of its duration drawing on nothing more than the tensions that follow from shutting two or three people in a single location.
It opens with a young woman, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), fleeing a failed relationship in a fast car - a flight that hits the skids somewhere out in the rural heartlands when her vehicle is sideswiped off the highway. Perhaps it's telling that, when she eventually comes to, and finds herself shackled to a wall in a stone basement reminiscent of the Saw movies, the first item she should reach for is her phone: old habits, like successful heroines, die hard. Yet up until the closing moments - by which point it has become clear that 10 Cloverfield Lane is a very different genus of monster movie - this will be the only connection with the original. Reeves' film took as its subject the outbreak of panic; Trachtenberg's is firmly on lockdown.
Mostly, we're confined to the one farmhouse-cum-bolthole, observing the shifting dynamics between Michelle, her captor-protector Howard (John Goodman), doling out scrambled eggs while insisting the air outside would kill her, and Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), the genial contemporary she finds nursing a broken arm in the holding bay next door. This marks an interesting shift for the series. If the first film was geared towards finding new ways of shooting action, this follow-up is going for suspense: what's next, who's out there, who can you trust in here? Like last week's genre rethink The Witch, 10 Cloverfield Lane is another election-year emission that suggests America feels thoroughly threatened at the present moment - Michelle's "Paris Je T'Aime" T-shirt is a loaded wardrobe choice - but it's canny enough to discern that retreating into the shelter provided by a Big Daddy like Howard is no way forward.
Its bare-bones, no-frills, one-location framing may position matters closer to an episode of The Twilight Zone than anything likely to challenge Batman or Superman at the box office, yet here Chazelle and Trachtenberg offer a new (which is of course to say old) model for mainstream franchise-building, one that returns the emphasis to characters and ideas rather than splashy external effects. It'll certainly be a useful leg-up for Gallagher Jr. and Winstead (whose striking resemblance to the young Sigourney Weaver becomes useful over the closing stages), but it's an especially effective showcase for Goodman, who after years of bitty supporting work (an Argo here, a Trumbo there) seizes upon a role that allows him to loom properly large in a confined space. His Howard runs the gamut from bluff, man-of-the-house paternalism (suggesting an ambiguous variant of Roseanne's beloved Dan) to full-on, ogre-like temper tantrums. (When Emmett catches him watching Pretty in Pink - reputedly his late daughter's favourite film - it's both touching and somehow creepy.)
I wonder whether hardcore Cloverfield fans might take to the forums to complain that at least ninety of these minutes aren't more, well, cloverfieldy; you do sense the original script could equally have provided the template for a sequel to Monsters or Zombieland, even - at a push - White House Down. Yet whether playing "I Think We're Alone Now" over a Last Man on Earth-style montage of the advantages of the simpler life, or wringing black-comic tension from a terse parlour game, Trachtenberg assembles his film with a shrewdness that should play well with the Friday and Saturday night crowds. The wheel is not technically being reinvented here - the effects team are nudged awake in the final reel - but 10 Cloverfield Lane arrives as proof that, when not churning out bloated junk or commercial no-brainers, the studio system can still surprise us, and sometimes even surpass our expectations.
(MovieMail, March 2016)
10 Cloverfield Lane premieres on Channel 4 at 9pm tonight.