Lawrence Toppman

Before lame ending, ‘10 Cloverfield Lane’ grips you tight

Producer J.J. Abrams did himself and us no favors by calling his new movie “10 Cloverfield Lane” and dropping coy hints that it’s a “blood relative” to the 2008 “Cloverfield.”

When the new film veers in a different direction for the first hour and a half, it freezes the blood. When it finally pays clumsy homage to its cousin (not to mention leading toward an unneeded sequel), it dumps us in overfamiliar territory. It’s like an amusement park ride that drags inexplicably for the last hundred feet – but until then, it’s a joltingly fine journey.

John Goodman plays Howard, a survivalist living in a bunker with easygoing neighbor Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.). Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who’s breaking up with her boyfriend by running away, smashes up in a car crash and wakes up in Howard’s bunker.

He says he’s saved her life, because someone – Russians, Koreans, maybe even aliens – have attacked the Earth, leaving the air unbreathable. Michelle assumes she’s a prisoner, though Emmett seems comfortable. She can’t decide whether Howard is crazy or correct, until she realizes he may be both.

Writers Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle play fair, giving us clues that seem to contradict each other but finally cohere in a credible way. And while Winstead and Gallagher handle their characters well, Goodman inhabits his: He’s a bear who seems amiable enough in his den but may show his claws if someone triggers his rage. (“Misery” aside, Hollywood hardly ever gives awards to actors in horror films. But it should.)

Why does he object so strongly when Emmett and Michelle develop a friendship that might turn physical? Did his daughter really move away with his ex-wife, leaving him sad and alone? Does she exist at all? Why does he seem incontrovertibly sure about the poisoned air?

Yet just as the suspense builds to a nearly unbearable point, the writers and director Dan Trachtenberg make two mistakes: They give in to 1980s-style horror tropes, then change the focus of the story. Suddenly weary Michelle needs more than cunning; she must become Supergirl’s blood relative.

Still, the disappointments come late and are filmed well. Trachtenberg makes excellent use of the bunker, where almost all the film takes place; it seems livable and claustrophobic at the same time, depending on where the camera goes.

Fans should appreciate the in-jokes. Bradley Cooper, who had a breakout role in the Abrams-produced “Alias” in 2003, returns the favor with a voice cameo. Tagruato Corporation, whose deep-sea drilling may have unleashed the monster in “Cloverfield,” shows up in the return address of an envelope sent to Howard.

Abrams has tried to produce a film that stands on its own yet ties into a universe that has yet to fully reveal itself. “10 Cloverfield Lane” manages to do both – yet in retrospect, the first would have been enough.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘10 Cloverfield Lane’

Cast: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr.

Director: Dan Trachtenberg.

Length: 105 minutes.

Rating: PG-13 (thematic material, including frightening sequences of threats with some violence, and brief language).

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