Cloverfield, which I only kinda-sorta liked? Was this something I wanted to make time for? I wish someone had been there to fill me in, specifically on the following:
First: no, 10 Cloverfield Lane is not a sequel. The best comparison I could make is that it establishes "Cloverfield" as a genre brand name, along the lines of The Twilight Zone, Amazing Stories, or (I hear) Black Mirror (which I keep meaning to get to). But this story stands on its own, involves no characters from Cloverfield, and is not a "found footage" movie. Cloverfield is an action monster movie. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a psychological thriller.
Second: this movie's script, originally by Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken, received a rewrite by Damien Chazelle -- the writer-director of Whiplash. I can't speak highly enough (or often enough) of Whiplash; I would have rushed to see 10 Cloverfield Lane if I'd known of the connection. But if I can't convince you how unexpectedly tense and suspenseful that movie is, let me say that 10 Cloverfield Lane generates the same tension and suspense, in a more expected thriller package. (Chazelle was actually set to direct his own rewrite here, but when his funding came through for Whiplash -- his dream project -- he gave up the director's chair to Dan Trachtenberg).
Third: the filmmakers weren't being cagey about the film's content out of a desire to con their audience. The movie really does have a lot of twists and turns that are best not spoiled. Here is as much as I want to reveal of the plot... and I'm really only covering the first few minutes:
A woman named Michelle is in a terrible car accident and wakes up in an underground bunker. Creepy conspiracy theorist Howard says he has saved her life by bringing her there. But she cannot leave: the apocalypse has come in the form of deadly chemical attack -- by terrorists, a foreign government, or even Martians, he can't say. Michelle doesn't want to believe Howard, but there's another, more trustworthy survivor in the bunker, Emmett, who confirms the whole story. What is the truth, and who knows it? Is Michelle in more danger if she stays than if she leaves? Again and again throughout the movie, new revelations upset everything you think you know.
The script is clever, but what really drives the movie are its three performers. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who has been in everything from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to Death Proof to the more recent incarnation of The Thing) shines as Michelle. You fear for her and cheer for her in equal measure. John Gallagher, Jr. (who starred in many Broadway musicals before landing on Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom) is great as Emmett, Michelle's only lifeline in this tale. He's warm and reassuring, but with just enough of an "off" undercurrent to make you wonder if he's hiding secrets too. John Goodman commands every scene as Howard, giving an absolutely consistent performance that can nevertheless be read differently from scene to scene. Is he a tortured father figure or a psychotic torturer? Goodman conveys both with equal effectiveness.
To say any more about why I loved 10 Cloverfield Lane would be to give too much away. I worry I may have given away too much already. The bottom line: if you like psychological thrillers, you need to see this one. The movie gets an A. So far, it's my movie to beat in 2016.