If going in you were ready for monsters and mayhem, well…join the club. But this was another beast entirely. After an establishing scene of narration with the film’s heroine rag dolled unconscious in a car crash–10 Cloverfield Lane rolls out with all the markers of run-of-the-mill torture-porn, a la the Saw series.
It starts like this: Michelle awakes confused, feeling at the wound on her forehead. The room she is in is small and poorly lit, four concrete walls without windows. She sits up on an elbow, focusing her eyes and noticing that the door to her room is pale blue steel, like that of a ship, with a big, mechanical pull lock. She feels down her body and the camera follows in an extreme close-up. She gets to her leg and touches what looks like an old leather brace fastened with laces and attached to it, a piece of metal. She grabs at the metal and up what looks to be a chain, pulling back covers…she’s been handcuffed to the wall! Her breathing quickens in panic. She begins to cry and yank at the chain in agony – just then, we hear footsteps in the hall just outside her cell as the lock to her door is wrenched open…
You could see people at my theater audibly shifting in their seats. The tension is palpable. But after what feels like inordinate speechless finagling with Michelle’s IV as she sits there horrified, pleading for her life, Howard (played by John Goodman) eases her (and our) nerves saying he isn’t going to kill her and that he’s rescued her from that car accident. Now show a little gratitude.
Howard’s an ex-Navy specialist and conspiracy nut with piss-poor coping skills. But, as he explains, he not only saved her from a car crash, (that’s the least of their problems), he’s also saved them from some, to this point unknown, terror that’s affected everything under the sun and the results are grim. Whether it was atomic, or chemical, or aliens (yes, aliens); according to Howard, everyone she knew is dead. Sorry. Ironically, this has a calming effect on Michelle.
Where the film lets off the proverbial gas here and we’re introduced to a third bunk(er)mate, a virtuous local 20-something, the group dynamic between the three is cemented and we begin to examine the limits of this collaboration of necessity. And it proved to be a fascinating study. The close quarters, Howard’s sensitivity, his short fuse, Michelle’s suspicions, all this coalesced into a shroud of unease that hung over the mundane day-to-day of life in the bunker. The bleak, claustrophobic task of literal time-consuming focused all of the film’s energy on the relationships of the bunk(er)mates and what it is Howard wasn’t telling them. It had a tangible effect on me. Even the slightest misstep could blow up into a big thing and I watched fixedly in anticipation. You could cut through the thing with a knife.
And then what ended up being the strongest aspect of the film was its tightly controlled style of information dissemination, only enhanced by the anxiety of bunker life. At the end of the day, this was a mystery movie. It forced you to question what really happened up on the surface, and what is Howard’s deal anyway? The establishment of tight information control demanded strong, conscious engagement from the viewer and provided a welcomed level of accessibility. Never did I or Michelle know anything more or less than one another at any given time. The world unfolded as it was unto us, simultaneously. And this proved to be an incredibly endearing style of narration. Clues were plain and consumable, never buried or intentionally vague. It was just smart storytelling.
10 Cloverfield Lane achieves its high degree of suspense and its ultimate quality of attraction by stoking some of human nature’s fundamentals, our desire for truth and harmony. By minimizing moments and focusing on dynamics, scenes are instantly more thrilling, accessible and satisfying. Where it seems to only relate to its predecessor in name and studio, 10 Cloverfield Lane took a respectable detour from the excesses of modern cinema (hiding quite literally from them) and proves that when the smoke clears, humans really are the universe’s most fascinating creatures.