The absolutely worst thing about 10 Cloverfield Lane is that it's titled 10 Cloverfield Lane. For the title means that we're going to have some expectation that it will in some capacity tie into the 2008 giant monster from space movie Cloverfield, no matter how much we want not to. Thus, no matter how carefully Josh Campbell & Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle's screenplay keeps refusing to give us even the slightest hint as to whether the unhinged survivalist keeping a young woman and man locked with him in a subterranean bunker is right to do so, or if he's just a dangerous lunatic, it takes a viewer with steelier willpower than I to not keep giving the movie sidelong glances and asking, "yeah, but there are aliens, right? This whole time it's about aliens."

Maybe it's about aliens, maybe it's not. I won't spoil the film any more than it already came pre-spoiled. Of course it's about fucking aliens. But for most of its running time, that's not what it's about at all, and I think with a little more massaging and craftiness, and a screenwriter capable of coming remotely close to being able to concoct a reasonably convincing human female, there could have been a pretty swell modern-day Twilight Zone story in here. If nothing else, the film has an absolute all-timer of an ambiguous villain in the form of John Goodman's Howard the survivalist: as nobody but the Coen brothers have ever seemed to notice before now, Goodman's big, gregarious papa bear demeanor can be easily tweaked just a few notches into something towering and threatening. Howard's not an achievement in pure burning menace like Charlie Meadows in the final act of Barton Fink; hell, he's probably not as actually, unpredictably scary as the short-fused Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski. But this is still excellent work from Goodman, who uses his big frame and quiet, steady voice to project somebody who is so eminently capable of being dangerous that it's somewhat immaterial if he's being specifically dangerous about any one thing at any given moment.

For reasons that are hard to pin down, nothing else in 10 Cloverfield Lane is nearly as good as Goodman's performance: it's a strangely uninvolving movie for the most part, despite a crackerjack premise and solid acting all around. It's a little too slick and polished, maybe; it has all the earmarks of production company Bad Robot, which has an unerring tendency to make movies that look like really glamorous TV pilots (and TV pilots that look like unusually impressive low-budget movies, to be fair), which is sort of a problem - one expects a tension-filled bunker to be kind of grimy and underlit, right? Or is that just me? - but production designer Ramsey Avery and cinematographer Jeff Cutter tag-team on making a space that's claustrophobic and tense, while also feeling like Howard put some manner of effort into humanising it, despite having a weak handle on how humans live. It feels like a set; but it feels like a really well-made set that has been meticulously planned out to maximise the potential of the screenplay.

It's a good screenplay, too. Not a great screenplay. The characters are largely inauthentic, acting the way they have to in order to ensure that the plot develops at the right pace rather than because it feels like an inevitable part of who and what they are. As far as is possible, the actors compensate for this. Our main character is Michelle, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and she's a sketch more than a complete role: there's a sense that she ought to feel on heightened awareness constantly, being trapped in a bunker with two men, one of whom almost certainly is lying to her about his intentions, but for protracted sections, the script largely forgets that this is the case; it falls entirely to Winstead to keep up a sense of tension in her character. This mostly works, with Winstead's way of crouching against walls and flicking her gaze all around selling most of what we need to know about Michelle's nervous, wired state, which simply isn't there in much of the writing. Even she's not able to redeem the way that Michelle acts in accordance with a three-act structure rather than her own good sense; in particular, there's a moment where she discovers a frantic, scratched-out cry for help that seems impossible to me: surely she would have discovered it before then if she was actually hunting for a way out as systematically as it feels like she must have been.

As for the third character, Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.): he's mostly present to add a layer of interest to the film & keep it from being a repetitive two-hander, and Gallagher accordingly plays the part with a good sense of humor and no stabs at crafting an inner life.

Anyway, despite all of this, 10 Cloverfield Lane is definitely onto something; its depiction of power dynamics and the way people try to outwit seemingly unsolvable problems can be quite clever, and it's generally a pretty fine depiction of reasonable paranoia. Director Dan Trachtenberg keeps shifting the tone between outright menace and more unexpected, loose hang-out moments - there are jokey song cues that have no right to work as well as they do - which keeps us mostly on our toes. It's not really anything deeper than a doodle, which is a shame; but it's a reasonably fast-paced thriller that manages to keep us confused about where precisely it's going even though where it's generally going could not be any more obvious. Howard is sufficiently unpredictable that we remain as confused and nervous around him as Michelle, so even if the characters are ultimately underwritten, we still end up feeling a solid bond with them.

I'm even intrigued, on paper, by the loopy final act, though the execution is conspicuously lacking. There's something to be said for letting a movie that spends as much time stretching the viewer's nerves tight having a sudden explosive unraveling of action. There'd be even more to be said for it if that action was particularly interesting, as opposed to be mostly a rather lifeless Jurassic Park riff with plasticky CGI, and if it ended in a way that left this movie feeling meaningfully contained, as opposed to being open-ended for the sake of it. In practice, the whole thing feels nonsensical and a sop to fanboys who came for the title and nothing else, and it casts a retrospective pall over the whole feature; but then, 10 Cloverfield Lane feels always and above all like it's failing to be the best version of itself, so a finale that seems at odds with the rest of the film is mostly just par for the course.