Appropriately enough for a film that spends most of its running time in a doomsday bunker, if I had to describe 10 Cloverfield Lane in a single word, it would be “economical.” The main character’s arc, the plot, and the main themes are in perfect lockstep. Every Chekhov’s gun goes off. The closest analogue to the way this film uses props and objects is a point-and-click adventure game. Nothing in this film goes to waste…until the last fifteen minutes where they throw a big alien action scene in for no good reason that doesn’t just come out of nowhere to completely change the tone of everything that came before it, but distracts from the actual thematically satisfying ending. Until that point though, 10 Cloverfield Lane is one of the year’s best films.
After an off-screen fight with her boyfriend, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), runs away from everything, packing a suitcase full of clothes and driving off into the night. After a car crash, she wakes up chained to wall in Howard’s (John Goodman) underground bunker. He’s tells her he rescued her, not just from the crash, but the end of the world. The only other survivor is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), one of Howard’s neighbors who managed to fight his way into the bunker before whatever ended the world could get to him.
10 Cloverfield Lane approaches Sartre. It’s about people who run away placed in a trap. Michelle ran from one boyfriend into a bunker with two more men, at least one of which is much more deliberately controlling. Emmett, who we find out always kept a bus ticket out of town on him in case he finally got the courage to leave no longer has any means to use it. And Howard, who built the bunker, has successfully ran away to the end of the world.
We know Michelle is the hero of the movie because she’s the only one who wants to keep running, who wants to escape. Immediately after waking up chained to the wall, connected to a fluid drip, and undressed; she tries to escape, and she doesn’t stop through the rest of the film. And she’s resourceful, carving a wooden crutch she’s given into a spear, and when that fails to ensure her escape, builds a fire – the echoing of mankind’s first advances haven’t gone unnoticed. And Michelle is an Eve of a sort, the only woman in this new world. Michelle doesn’t talk much, but Mary Elizabeth Winsted’s huge eyes clue us into a character who’s always planning, looking around for something she can turn into a tool, a route for escape.
Meanwhile, Goodman’s Howard is clearly a monster, but it takes a while before we find out what sort of monster. He admits that he’s lived his life of preparation for the apocalypse without regrets – he’s stopped running. He seems almost proud of being one of the last survivors, but permanently scowling, continues to look for validation for his preparedness, demanding the other characters respect him. He takes a little too long to do everything – he doesn’t immediately explain why he has Michelle chained up to a wall; which leads to him taking a little too long to fall for Michelle’s first attempt to ambush him and escape. And when he finally does mention the end of the world, he leaps into theories of a Russian, or even Martian invasion. And he thinks of Michelle, a fully grown adult female, as a girl, never a woman. He’s a perfect creep, someone who demands people consider him without considering others.
Emmett is a third wheel, but not a completely underdeveloped one. At first almost childlike in his trust of Howard compared to Michelle, he winds up being convinced that Howard might not be the savior he likes to think of himself as. He’s someone who ran away from the chance to do something great, but never gave up on maybe doing something good one day.
10 Cloverfield Lane is expertly paced, with the tension growing every second, from the first room Michelle is chained to the wall in, towards one climactic escape attempt. Part of this is a slow drip-feed of new information and resources. Michelle slowly discovers new parts of the bunker, perhaps new doors out, and new tools to turn into means of escape. There are some moments and shots that remind me very much of Alien – including an air duct sequence – and the whole finale of Alien is kind of flipped on its head through the entire film: that you’re trapped with something that wants to keep you alive for whatever reason; and instead of Ripley escaping from the expansive Nostromo in a cramped capsule, Michelle wants to escape a cramped bunker into the wide world.
And then the actual aliens arrive and the film shits itself. After seeing them, Michelle actually exclaims, “Oh, c’mon” and it couldn’t be more appropriate. After an almost immaculate 80 or so minutes of expert tension building and room-escape, 10 Cloverfield Lane completely changes tone and turns into an undeserved action movie that distracts from Michelle’s and the story’s actual resolution. Honestly, if you’re watching this movie – start fast-forwarding when the alien appears, and resume playing once it’s gone – it improves the film.
Barring that though, if 10 Cloverfield Lane had a different title and was distributed by A24, people would be calling it one of the year’s best films. It’s a film that owns its smallness, making the most of its limited characters and setting to construct an almost perfect story of people trapped in a room together. The tension holds, and even continues to grow, even after all the mysteries are solved and every question is answered.