After the galaxy-spanning The Force Awakens, J.J Abrams’ new project (which he may only produce, but his fingerprints are all over it) is set almost entirely in a tiny, claustrophobic bunker. Not quite a sequel, or even a spiritual successor, his film is more like a distant second-cousin to 2008’s Cloverfield. The similarities, such as they are, are nebulous: Cloverfield’s scares come in the form of aliens – monstrous, teratoid creatures; whereas here the horrors are all thoroughly human.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Michelle, who awakens after a car-crash chained to a locked breeze-block door. Her captor (or is that saviour?) insists that the apocalypse has arrived. ‘I’m not sure if it’s chemical or nuclear’, he mutters darkly. ‘He’ is Howard, played by John Goodman, in superlative late-career form. Goodman is a peculiar figure: he made his career in sitcoms, and his filmography isn’t up to all that much, confined mostly to supporting roles in moderately good Hollywood flicks. Yet he maintains a deserved reputation as one of America’s finest actors. Here, he’s magnificently sinister; a cloying, deluded despot who oscillates between fulminating menace and overprotective father. His threat is buttressed by his enormous size. No other actor uses their girth quite so effectively. He seems to extend endlessly into the widescreen.
The film is neatly bisected, both qualitatively and in terms of the plot. The first hour is essentially a parable of domestic abuse, bearing a marked similarity to last year’s Room. In both, the cellar is equally a prison and a sanctuary. When it is trapped inside the bunker, Abrams’ movie is a taut, methodical thriller, of a type that rarely emerges from Hollywood. The uber-economical script gives you nothing that isn’t later redeployed in the form of a plot twist or a clever piece of dialogue. The effect is something akin to Steven Spielberg directing a Michael Haneke chamber piece. However, in the last half hour, after we climb out of the bunker, the whole thing takes on a radically different tone. What had been so constrained and measured becomes overblown and indulgent, as Michelle goes from fighting human monsters to the boring ones you find in outer space. What starts so promisingly ends up being hamstrung by the commitments made in its own title.
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