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Rated 3.0

Just as he did with the first Cloverfield, producer J.J. Abrams has managed to sneak a movie into multiplexes under a shroud of secrecy and mystery.

With little more than a couple of months notice, a film shot under the code name Valencia became 10 Cloverfield Lane.

What’s the significance of “Cloverfield” in that movie title? Abrams is calling this film a blood relative to the original found-footage monster movie. The new film is not a found-footage film (and thank god for that). After seeing it, I can tell you that the title is not misleading, but don’t go to this thinking you will see the Cloverfield monster laying waste to middle America. It’s a much different kind of movie.

The film starts with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) having an urgent phone call with somebody. She grabs her keys, hits the road, and drives for what appears to be many miles out of the big city into the cornfields. After stopping for some gas, her car crashes for mysterious reasons. She wakes up from said crash with an IV drip and her leg cuffed to a bar.

Shortly thereafter, she meets Howard (John Goodman). Howard seems a little bit anxious and tells her she needs to hydrate, practice using crutches and, oh yeah, the end of the world is nigh. No one really knows why, but the air above is now contaminated, and they must reside in his emergency bunker for what could be years.

There’s another inhabitant of the bunker, and that’s Howard’s soft-spoken neighbor Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.). Emmett allegedly helped Howard put the bunker together, and he’s not really sure why the world is ending, either. All of this leaves the beautiful Michelle, in the captive hands of two questionable strangers, suspicious and desiring to be outside, even if the world is dying.

Is the world really ending? Howard seems to think so, citing nuclear war and alien invasion as possibilities. Emmett is this way or that way about it. He just seems really happy to be around Michelle all day putting puzzles together. Is it just a grand plan for two creepy guys to imprison a beautiful woman for their perverted ends?

First time director Dan Trachtenberg does a nice job keeping you guessing. I went into 10 Cloverfield Lane with my own suspicions, based on the trailers, of how everything would pay off and how the film would tie into the “Cloverfield Universe.” My suspicions were, for the most part, confirmed, with a few deviations.

Winstead is an acting treasure who doesn’t get enough opportunities to shine. Her performance in Smashed (2012) is proof of that. She’s equally good here, playing a strong-minded hostage justifiably brimming with paranoia. She’s very easy to root for, even when the screenplay tries to tilt sympathies toward Howard and Emmett.

Getting perhaps his meatiest role in years, Goodman is golden as the “maybe he’s a monster, maybe he’s a savior” survivalist. There are nuances in his work that will keep you guessing every second he’s on screen. As for Emmett, no knock on Gallagher Jr., but his character seems tacked on.

The film is a slick thriller with a few plot holes that might nag you in its aftermath. For me, it offered very few major surprises, although that has much to do with me seeing basically every movie that comes out and being savvy to many directorial tricks. When the movie did “get” me on occasion, it did so competently.

Above all, 10 Cloverfield Lane is an acting exercise for Winstead and Goodman, who play really well off of each other. As more mysteries about Howard and the outside world are revealed, the tension ratchets up, and Trachtenberg proves himself a fine handler of all the elements.

I’m guessing 10 Cloverfield Lane is not the last we will see of the “C” word in a movie title. Think of Cloverfield movies as an anthology series with a few plot machinations tying things together. So far, two movies in, it’s proving to be a relatively stable endeavor.