Fair warning: 10 Cloverfield Lane is a movie you should probably see before you read anything about it.
It’s not at all a Cloverfield sequel, in content or style. Rather, it’s a weird fusion of two different genres of film, one of them being the “escape the room” thriller featured in the trailer, and the other being an entirely different movie that the characters emerge into near the end of the story.
The only reason that these two film styles hang together at all is due to Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character Michelle, because in both instances she’s facing a problem that is distressingly familiar: How can a woman fight back against her predators when they have the strength of the entire world behind them?
There’s a big chunk of the movie I haven’t yet mentioned, but it’ll be relevant to the discussion going forward, so…stop reading now if you don’t want to be spoiled.
10 Cloverfield Lane differs from its “spiritual” predecessor Cloverfield in that the moviegoer isn’t following a phenomenon (world’s first kaiju attacks NYC). Instead, we follow the personal growth of the main character Michelle as she passes through a series of interrelated phenomena.
Throughout the entire film we are asked to identify with Michelle, and every aspect of the movie pushes the viewer into that state. When she wakes up alone in a bunker, we need the same thing as she does–explanations, assurances, information, and proof–and she doesn’t stop pressing for them until her, and by extension the audience’s, needs are satisfied.
Our sympathy and shared perspective with Michelle is channeled by the very structure of the film. If Michelle doesn’t want to see or hear someone, even if they’re important to her, then we don’t see or hear them. The film begins with Michelle fleeing her husband/fiancee Ben, and we only hear his perspective on their relationship when Michelle chooses to let him speak.
The camera stays with Winstead throughout the entire film, as well. As opposed to the two other characters in the bunker, Howard and Emmett, the movie always lets you know where Michelle is and what she is doing. Bear McCreary’s soundtrack evokes Michelle’s feelings so consistently that the two instances where that soundtrack is overridden feel dangerous. Even the sound design is from Michelle’s perspective. The movie focuses on the same noises that she does, whether they be Howard’s ominous footsteps, a car passing over the bunker, or the unearthly rhythm of something that is…not quite a helicopter.
We need to be in Michelle’s head, because the story of 10 Cloverfield Lane is about her struggle to ascertain what is real. Is John Goodman’s Howard who he says he is? Was there really an attack on the surface world? Should Michelle really be trying to escape? The answer to everything is yes, and the “reveal” of 10 Cloverfield Lane is not that the answer is yes, but that these are all ultimately superficial questions that don’t change the situation that Michelle is in. Even after Michelle gets answers to her questions, she instinctively knows that something is still not right.
Early in the film, Michelle and her bunker-mate Emmett explain their motivations to each other as a way of breaking the ice for what looks like a long stay underground. We find out that Emmett helped Howard build the bunker, and that he passed up an important college scholarship to do so. Michelle can relate. She grew up with an abusive father and tells Emmett a story about how she freezes up when she encounters signs of that same abuse elsewhere, despite wanting to rush in and help. Emmett is afraid of being challenged, and Michelle is afraid of being challenging.
How you perceive the rest of the movie depends on how you respond to Michelle’s admission, and since the movie has spent so much time putting you inside Michelle’s emotional state, most likely you feel the same as her. You don’t want to believe Howard’s story, you want to challenge it, but every challenge just reinforces the truth of his narrative. The car crash that resulted in her waking up in Howard’s bunker WAS caused by Howard…who was fleeing a legitimate attack and driving erratically. The air IS poison, as Michelle sees when she encounters a zombified survivor pounding on their bunker door.
Howard is telling the truth, his narrative can be supported by evidence, but he’s still asserting his reality over hers. We are given small clues to this all throughout the movie. Howard never knocks on the door to her room, he just comes in. He offers Michelle access that he does not offer Emmett, despite Emmett having helped build the bunker. He prompts Michelle to dress in his daughter’s old clothes. He goes crazy when Michelle briefly touches Emmett. And most tellingly, Howard insistently can’t bring himself to think of Michelle as a woman, just a girl. His favorite song, in fact, begins with the line “Children behave…”
Michelle’s instincts, honed by her background as someone who has been targeted by male abusers, know that something is off. Finally, she gets an opportunity to step outside of Howard’s influence for a moment, and is subsequently able to piece together what Howard really is: a sexual predator.
Michelle is not a person to Howard, she is a doll he is slowly crafting in the visage of his previous victim. (Emmett is even less of a person to Howard, just a barrier standing between Howard and Michelle, and he is brutally murdered by Howard as a result.) Howard has been gaslighting Michelle this entire time, using the truth of their situation to support his false reality.
This is the real worth of 10 Cloverfield Lane: Telling a story where we are complicit in accepting Howard’s reality over our own, even though we inhabit Michelle’s perspective. The movie is admirable in how it never allows us to blame the “victim” in this scenario of abuse. She is cornered. We are cornered. Would we blame ourselves for not being “prepared” for this kind of scenario? Of course not.
Michelle fights back and escapes, because in addition to portraying the grey spaces where predators grow, 10 Cloverfield Lane is about Michelle’s growth into someone who feels empowered enough to respond to predators. She begins the film by fleeing her husband/fiancee Ben, and while we don’t know what happened beyond “a fight,” the implications are dark. It would take a drastic fight to break off an engagement, and although we don’t see any marks on Michelle, she nonetheless leaves in a hurry. This is not the behavior of someone in a break-up, this is how someone behaves when they feel that their life is in danger.
Her time in Howard’s bunker turns into essentially the same situation, except here she has no escape route and is forced to fight back against the man threatening her life. Her defense against him is ingenious, turning the tools and chambers within the bunker–essentially Howard’s reality–against him. Her perspective, her narrative, survives.
The movie doesn’t end here, however. Michelle emerges onto the surface to find it patrolled by alien insects the size of airplanes who are gassing all mammalian lifeforms. One of the insect predators zeroes right in on her and despite her best efforts at evasion, traps her in Howard’s truck and lifts her up to its maw.
Predators, it seems, are constantly intent on controlling, killing, or otherwise using Michelle for their own ends. Her doom feels inevitable. She has no weapons, no control over her movement, and is facing a threat with unknown capabilities. But Michelle has gone through a lot in the past month and you know what? If she’s doing to die then she’s going to it on her terms. So she flings a flaming bottle of whiskey into the maw of this big, impossible creature.
Michelle wins, and while this is thrilling, at this point we’re in an almost entirely different movie and her victory can’t help but feel tonally off in comparison to what came before. Luckily, thankfully, the final moments of the film dismiss the widescreen spectacle and focus back in on Michelle, delivering an eyebrow-raising catharsis that turns 10 Cloverfield Lane into a fascinating science fiction tale.
While searching the AM radio spectrum for news, any news, on what is happening, Michelle learns that there is a shelter north of her that is taking in refugees. But… there is also a band of fighters–represented by a female voice–west of her in Houston who are looking for healers and experienced combatants. “We are fighting them,” says the voice. “We are winning. But we need more people to join us.”
She turns west. Predators are to be confronted, otherwise their reality embeds itself into the ground, swarms and multiplies across the world, and poisons the very air we breathe. In its fractured way, 10 Cloverfield Lane asks each of us: Will we help Michelle reclaim the world?
Chris Lough writes about superheroes and fantasy and stuff on Tor.com.