★ ★ ★ ★

In an era of cinema in which comic-book sequels and reboots are announced nearly a decade in advance, 10 Cloverfield Lane’s title was revealed less than two months before it hit theaters—all part of a typically unorthodox promotional campaign from producer J.J. Abrams. The original Cloverfield (2008) wrote the book on viral marketing, as it sparked a thousand theories from Internet sleuths who attempted to figure out the plot of the film from online Easter eggs and leaked information. But while Abrams’ fervent fans might be shocked to learn that a Cloverfield sequel is here already, those expecting 10 Cloverfield Lane to be a blood relative to the original’s found-footage monster mashup will find that there’s very little connecting the two together.

Instead, 10 Cloverfield Lane is the rare sequel that, instead of filling in the narrative gaps left behind by its predecessor, plunges into the psychological ambiance and arresting uneasiness of its own created universe. Perhaps it’s fitting that the unconventional promotion and production of the film was shrouded in mystery, since Abrams has taken a leap of faith here by relying on first-time feature director Dan Trachtenberg to helm the picture; it proves to be a rewarding choice, as Trachtenberg quickly announces that he’s a talent to watch. Anyone who was even remotely engaged in the marketing sweep of the original will grin when they see a Slusho! sign within the first few minutes. But those grins will quickly be replaced by gasps for air after one of the most jarring title treatments in recent memory kicks off the high-stakes tension that pervades the ensuing 100-plus minutes.

We begin with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) hastily packing up her apartment and leaving behind an engagement ring. She’s making a beeline for greener pastures after an apparent spat with her fiancé, who desperately calls Michelle on the road to plead for her to return (curiously, he’s voiced by Bradley Cooper). Distracted by her iPhone’s buzzing, Michelle gets into a horrific car accident. She wakes up in what looks like a Saw-inspired room, injured and shackled to the bed via a leg brace. Her captor (or savior?) soon enters: Howard (John Goodman), who breaks the news to Michelle that there’s been a terrorist (or extraterrestrial?) chemical attack that has rendered the outside air poisonous. Howard happened to be driving past Michelle at the moment of her accident, pulled her from her mangled vehicle, and brought her to his doomsday cellar—which is fully equipped with running water, electricity, and years of sustenance.

Michelle and Howard aren’t alone in the bunker; the daft but charming Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) managed to arrive at the sealed-off shelter in the midst of the attack. He helped Howard construct the underground haven over a number of years, and headed there immediately after the first signs of the assault. Michelle is understandably terrified and skeptical of the scatterbrained, conspiracy-mongering Howard and his apparent accomplice Emmett, and plots a myriad of ways to escape—despite being told that she’ll die if she comes in contact with the conditions outside. As the dynamics between the three continually shift over the coming days, Michelle begins to doubt the truth of both what’s happening in the shelter and in the outside world.

The trio of Winstead, Goodman, and Gallagher are sensational in their demanding roles. They make the slow burn of mental anguish palpable in every claustrophobic scene, many of which play out with the attention to detail of a theatrical production. And credit should go to Trachtenberg for fully harnessing the power of his leads in a movie that’s built on a foundation of focused storytelling, psychological dread, and apocalyptic anxiety. The debutant director and screenwriters Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle are able to create a wholly original conceit made up of brilliantly arranged and nerve-shredding set pieces.

If this reviewer sounds like he’s being coy about the film’s plot developments, it’s only out of a desire for interested parties to enjoy them firsthand in the theater. As 10 Cloverfield Lane thunders on, expectations are smashed, built up, and smashed again, and then finally give way to a surreal and downright bonkers third act. The result is nothing less than genre-movie magic—only applicable to those with a high tolerance for the suspension of disbelief. Trachtenberg impressively weaves together a delightful amalgamation of past influences, red herrings, and unrelenting tension. Here’s hoping for more to come in the Cloverfield universe.