10 Cloverfield Lane reminds me of a turkey sandwich I once made. 

I piled on big pieces of fresh, juicy white turkey breast with a dash of salt and pepper and a little cranberry sauce for a spread. I topped it with a piece of bread and just as I was about to bite into it, I realized the two slices of bread I used were moldy. And that’s 10 Cloverfield Lane–a lackluster opening and ending on either side of a fantastic middle act.

The movie opens with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) going through a melodramatic 3-5starsbreakup scene with her fiance. He isn’t there, but we see her leave a key and write a Dear John letter. She gets in her car and leaves, thinking in flashbacks of her troubled relationship. It’s odd that the movie should start here, considering none of this information matters to the rest of the movie, and none of it really comes up again in any substantial way.

Michelle gets into an accident on a dark, deserted road and wakes up chained to a bed in some kind of underground bunker. This is the start of the fantastic middle act. The bunker is under the home of Howard, an odd survivalist played by John Goodman in his best performance since Barton Fink. Howard tells Michelle there has been an attack–either nuclear or chemical–and it’s unsafe to be outside. He says he found her and took her there, saving her life. The only other person in the bunker is Emmett (John Gallagher). When Michelle tries to escape early on, Howard captures her again, and tells her if she breaches the bunker’s seals and lets the outside air in, they could all die.

This part of the movie works so well because we don’t know what’s really happening. Is Howard a weird sicko who has kidnapped an attractive young woman and chained her in his basement, or is he the sort of paranoid conspiracy theorist who turns out to be the only one who’s prepared when the apocalypse actually happens? It takes a tremendous acting performance to sustain a character who is believable as either one of those people at the same time. But that’s what John Goodman does here. He’s fantastic.

Watch Goodman when the three of them are playing a board game and he’s losing. You learn everything you need to know about that character in those few minutes–the blurry line between his quixotic ideas of fairness and his hair-trigger temper at the slightest whiff of injustice. And it’s not all in the script. It’s as much in his eyebrows as in the dialogue. The performance itself would be award worthy if it weren’t in a movie that insists on being less than it could have been.

All that wonderful claustrophobia, tension and uncertainty in the bunker goes away when the moldy bread of an ending comes along. It’s hard not to give anything away, especially since all the movie posters do, but you go into this knowing that it’s some sort of Cloverfield sequel. That was an alien invasion movie, and with nary an alien in sight and 10 minutes to go in the runtime, you don’t have to be a psychic to figure out what’s coming.

Presenting this as a Cloverfield sequel totally undermines that brilliant middle act, because it undercuts Michelle’s uneasy feelings about Howard’s motives. As well as it’s working as a psychological thriller up to that point, we know something supernatural is going to jump out of the shadows.

The Cloverfield elements of this movie felt so tacked on, I had to do a bit of research. Sure enough, it started out with pretty much that middle act as a stand-alone film called Valencia. During production, J.J. Abrams’s production company acquired it and adapted the story to set it in the “Cloverfield universe”. We have to assume the purpose was likely to capitalize on the existing Cloverfield brand, tapping into an existing audience. That probably helped the box office performance, but Valencia as a stand-alone movie could have been a classic.

Title 10 Cloverfield Lane
Director Dan Trachtenberg
Writer Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, Damien Chazelle
Runtime 104 min
Starring John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr.
Production Paramount Pictures, Bad Robot, Spectrum Effects