By Stephanie Zacharek
March 10, 2016

The angry-sea-beast extravaganza Cloverfield–directed in 2008 by Matt Reeves and produced by cerebral sci-fi impresario J.J. Abrams–pretended to examine how self-absorbed we are as a culture, only to be gobbled up by its own self-absorption. 10 Cloverfield Lane–directed by newcomer Dan Trachtenberg, with Whiplash hotshot Damien Chazelle among its writers–is not an outright Cloverfield sequel but rather, as Abrams has put it, a “spiritual successor.” It’s also a better movie, one with a sense of humor about itself and its genre. The eminently likable Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Michelle, a peppery young woman who finds herself trapped, along with amiable odd-jobs guy Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), in the underground bunker of survivalist conspiracy kook Howard (John Goodman). Howard claims he’s actually keeping Michelle safe: the Russians–or maybe it’s Martians–have just dropped the big one, rendering Earth’s surface uninhabitable for a year or two. Michelle and Emmett, knowing they’re dealing with a nutter, plot their escape.

A few moments of grisly grimness aside, 10 Cloverfield Lane is hardly the dour, self-important exercise that Cloverfield was. Whiskery, country-sinister Howard has outfitted his lair with a family room that includes a jukebox (Frankie Avalon’s antiseptic goddess-worship anthem “Venus” tootles forth ominously), a stack of jigsaw puzzles and an “heirloom” kitchen table adorned with a cheerful pot of fake sunflowers–the joint is less man cave than gran cave.

Having picked up on Michelle’s hard-to-miss desperation to flee, Howard intones cryptically, “I think it’s time you met Frank and Mildred.” And so she does. But the movie’s finest feature may be Bear McCreary’s playfully foreboding score, a beehive of neurotic, buzzing strings that channels the spirit of Hitchcock fave Bernard Herrmann. Wherever the music leads, you want to follow–even if there’s only Frank and Mildred waiting for you on the other side.

–S.Z.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

This appears in the March 21, 2016 issue of TIME.

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