10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

The title 10 Cloverfield Lane, imposed by producers on a script that was originally called The Cellar and tying Dan Trachtenberg’s feature debut loosely – and rather artificially – to Matt Reeves’ 2008 alien invasion movie Cloverfield, may be the main, even the only, reason that this film ever attained a general theatrical release, so in this respect, we should be thankful for it. Yet the title is also its own spoiler, and terribly destructive to the tensions that the film’s first two thirds so deftly strain to mount.

Fleeing a relationship, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is violently sideswiped by another vehicle on the road, and awakens injured in an underground bunker. Her host, ex-military conspiracy theorist Howard (John Goodman), is gruffly unhesitant in asserting his authority, while presenting that authority as a sort of paternal benevolence – and his every gesture and utterance set off familiar alarm bells in Michelle. The fact that her leg has been cuffed to a pipe does not add to her reassurance, and viewers too will be wondering what kind of sick scenario is unfolding here.

Howard insists that Michelle cannot leave – not, he says, because she is his prisoner, but rather because there has been some sort of deadly attack above ground. Unsure what to believe, Michelle turns for more human comfort to the only other resident of the bunker, stay-at-home Emmett (John Gallagher Jr), also injured – and together these three form a dysfunctional family unit of sorts, with Howard very much the domineering daddy to this little girl lost and Emmett the nice if gormless fraternal ally she never had.

The claustrophobic scenes in the bunker create a suffocating microcosm of fugitive Michelle’s problems, and for once deny her an easy escape route, forcing the kind of confrontation that she has been avoiding all her life. Make no mistake: while this three-hander cannot possibly pass the Bechdel test, it is nonetheless driven by real feminist concerns, as Michelle has an awakening in the prisonhouse of patriarchy.

The three actors shine as people caught in rôles assigned to them long before they entered their domestic cage. It is just a pity that the tacked-on ending, far from coming as any surprise, delivers exactly what viewers have been expecting all along (thanks to that dumb-assed title) – even if, by then, there is no real distinction remaining between monsters outside and in. Here, science fiction is just another generic mode of expression for more intimate (and frankly more interesting) psychodramas, ultimately projected on a national scale.

Anton Bitel