"10 Cloverfield Lane" is only nominally a sequel to "Cloverfield," the scruffy li'l 2008 monster movie in which New York idiots ran around filming themselves while their city became the plaything of an intergalactic tourist. The new picture is that earlier film's neighbor down the street. And the neighbor lives in an underground bunker, where most of the story is set.
Are there monsters? Well. They're alluded to in the title and in the trailer, when John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead react fearfully to the sounds of something big and rumbly aboveground. But it's best to approach this crafty, intriguing offshoot as its own thing. And this time you actually notice the people.
Don't get me wrong. (Please. Anything but that.) I enjoyed the first "Cloverfield." Its found-footage aesthetic was literally nausea-inducing but its delay tactics in revealing the creature were clever and suspenseful. Also, the film's conclusion had a nice, vicious finality to it.
"10 Cloverfield Lane" was initially conceived as a movie unrelated to "Cloverfield" in any way, from title to tail. It begins with a breakup, a breathless, wordless prologue in which Michelle (Winstead), under serious duress, is frantically packing up and piling into her car to get away from her unseen boyfriend. Then she gets creamed by another car on the Louisiana highway and she takes a few terrible rolls off the median, and the worst of the crash is intercut, arrestingly, with the opening titles on screen.
All this is in the first few minutes. Michelle awakens with an IV in her arm and her leg chained to the wall, and it's all very see-"Saw." But it isn't, really. Is it? Her abductor/captor Howard, played by Goodman, claims to be her savior. In his well-appointed, fully furnished underground lair, this paranoid survivalist has previously captured and confined a handyman neighbor (played by John Gallagher Jr.), who becomes Michelle's confidant.
Howard claims that there's been an attack, either by the Russians or space invaders, and the air outside is no longer breathable. Early in "10 Cloverfield Lane" we see a bloodied woman begging to be let inside, arguing that she's only a little bit infected. But this is not a four-character piece; it's a triangle, and the script by Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken, revised by co-writer Damien Chazelle of "Whiplash" and the forthcoming "La-La Land," keeps its focus on the three wary figures in extreme confinement.
So it's a little bit of "Room," a little bit of "War of the Worlds," and producer J.J. Abrams' involvement ensures some dashes of unexpected humor (whether you believe the levity in this context or not) along with director Dan Trachtenberg's facility for occasional, brutally effective bursts of violence. Goodman's very good, taking care of job one, which is to keep us guessing Howard's intentions. And Winstead is even better, within the parameters of this genre mashup.
The setup is pure if sanitized PG-13 exploitation, guided by the viewpoint and exploits of a tank-topped heroine in distress. Yet "10 Cloverfield Lane" doesn't let on what it's up to, moment to moment. Winstead's shift into action mode works; her wry, affecting underplaying keeps the film companionable in its clammy way. And in a movie crammed with odd contrasts, the most striking may be the clinical crispness of the digital photography up against the old-school strings and analog vibe of Bear McCreary's musical score.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic material including frightening sequences of threat with some violence, and brief language).
Running time: 1:43