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The title of "10 Cloverfield Lane" is a bait-and-switch game, but for the best possible reasons because it so perfectly sets you up for one type of thriller that you won't be ready for the real terror as it unfolds.
The movie, as the marketing is sure to remind everyone, is produced by J.J. Abrams, who was behind the 2008 alien-invasion thriller "Cloverfield." The new movie's title leads one to expect a monster mash of the same order but rookie director Dan Trachtenberg takes the tension in a different direction that's just as scary.
Michelle (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is shown to us first packing up the car and running away from her fiancé. Then her car is knocked off the road somewhere in rural Louisiana. She wakes up in a cinder-block cell in an underground bunker, an IV tube in her arm and her injured knee in a brace which is chained to a pipe.
Michelle is greeted by Howard (John Goodman), a burly survivalist who tells her he has saved her life not only from her injuries in the crash, but from something else above ground. "There's been an attack," he tells her. He also informs her that the air outside his well-stocked bunker is lethal, and she had better get used to his company.
Howard and Michelle aren't alone. The third inhabitant of the bunker is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a local handyman who helped Howard build the bunker and, once things went bad, pleaded with Howard to let him in.
Telling more ventures into spoiler territory. Let's just say the script by Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken, with a rewrite by "Whiplash" director Damien Chapelle hinges on two questions: Is Howard just a mildly unhinged conspiracy theorist or something more sinister? And, either way, is Michelle more in danger with him or facing the unknown outside?
The movie differs in many ways from the original "Cloverfield," as Trachtenberg and cinematographer Jeff Cutter turn away from the first movie's found-footage gimmicks for a smoother, more traditionally cinematic look. The geography of the bunker is fascinating, and production designer Ramsey Avery adds such perfect details that it becomes a claustrophobic little universe that Trachtenberg deploys for maximum suspense.
The actors make the most of their tiny space and their characters' desperate situation. Goodman has rarely been better, switching from gruff charm to deep menace in a snap. But the movie belongs to Winstead, who not only goes toe-to-toe with him but conveys Michelle's fear and resolve with just the movement of her big brown eyes.
So is "10 Cloverfield Lane" truly a "Cloverfield" follow-up? Yes, in the ways that count: nail-biting tension and an ability to deliver something fresh and unexpected.
'10 Cloverfield Lane'
Three people in a bunker face danger, from each other and from whatever's happening outside, in this smart thriller.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, March 11.
Rating • PG-13 for thematic material including frightening sequences of threat with some violence, and brief language.
Running time • 103 minutes.