Let’s establish something important – 10 Cloverfield Lane is a companion piece to Matt Reeves and Drew Goddard’s 2008 found-footage sci-fi flick Cloverfield. The plot of that film has nothing to do with the plot of this film other than the fact that they are connected by the same alien invasion. This is important to realize as you go into the movie, because knowing that the alien invasion in Cloverfield really happened changes the way you feel about what is happening in 10 Cloverfield Lane.
In this new film, a young woman, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is abducted by a man, Howard (John Goodman), who is holed up in a survival bunker that he had built and stocked with supplies “just in case” something like Cloverfield’s alien invasion ever happened. The characters don’t know there’s been an alien invasion, mind you. They just know something bad has happened “up above,” and they’re stuck together in the bunker together whether they like it, like Howard, or not, like Michelle. The tension in the story hinges on that difference of opinion between each of the characters and the audience – Michelle wants out, Howard wants her to stay, and the audience wants everyone to just get along.
10 Cloverfield Lane is a crackling little thriller. Almost all the action is confined to the underground bunker, and Michelle’s detective work figuring our who Howard really is and how she really got there is most of the fun. The movie is aping Hitchcock—though it does indulge in a few grotesque moments Hitchcock usually avoided, either because censors or suspense demanded it—and that mimicry extends to the movie’s themes, but as a corrective to Hitchcock’s usual treatment of female characters. Michelle is truly our hero here, and Winstead gives her a tenacity and intelligence that is exemplary. She’s no innocent, though. The prologue briskly and smartly sets her up as a flawed, “real” woman. And that realness becomes important as the film positions her in opposition to her captor.
Goodman’s “Howard” is the darkest version you can imagine of the would-be alpha-male nice-guy who decries being “friend-zoned.” He believes he should be adored simply because he’s done everything he believes is right. He believes he’s owed affection. The disaster above ground is a dream come true to him, because it proves his conspiracy theories correct and provides him with an opportunity to impose his “goodness” on Michelle—importantly, never mind her will. The universe is a slot machine he has put the right combination of coins into, and it’s finally providing him with everything he’s ever desired. There’s an insane egotism in that. He has made himself into a kind of god that cannot be denied.
Perhaps my only complaint about 10 Cloverfield Lane is that by casting Goodman, excellent though he is, they obscure the fact that Michelle’s predicament is merely a hyperbolic version of the predicament any woman finds herself in when a self-pitying man-child tries to impose his will on her. That tension would have worked better with an actor half Goodman’s age.
When Michelle denies Howard, she is affirming her simple humanity. He should respect her will not because she’s especially deserving of it, but simply because she is an autonomous individual. But there’s no room for autonomous wills in Howard’s universe. There is only his. But of course, there is something bigger than his will in the world. It’s just separated from them by a few feet of earth.
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