Holding a mirror to the concerns of contemporary society is a staple of the monster movie. So when Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield arrived on US screens in 2008 it was clear a new breed of monster had emerged to embody the anxieties evoked by the surprise attacks of 9/11. 10 Cloverfield Lane, by debutant director Dan Trachtenberg (but produced by J.J. Abrams) is a would-be-sequel to Abrams’ found footage monster movie, and although it bears little narrative or stylistic resemblance to its predecessor this taut thriller effectively mirrors the contemporary fears of a nation.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Michelle, a young woman who we first encounter during a wordless preamble, packing her bags and preparing to leave her apartment. At first it’s unclear if she fleeing due to some form of national emergency and it’s only when we’re shown the engagement ring she leaves on the counter that we realise she running from someone, rather than something. She hits the road, but moments later she wakes up disorientated and alone in an empty cell. Her leg is chained to the wall and she’s unable to get any signal on her mobile. Then she hears the encroaching steps of her captor.
Before 10 Cloverifeld Lane fell into the hands of Abram’s Bad Robot production house, it began life as a low-budget script called The Cellar, about a woman, who wakes up in a bunker owned, and run by a conspiracy theorist named Howard. Here, John Goodman plays Howard, and he’s introduced by a low angle shot that allows his considerable girth to block the door and any hope of escape. Howard claims he’s saved her life, and her fellow bunker-mate, the charming, if a little dim-witted Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) collaborates his story. The initial premise of The Cellar was built around the basic idea of the enemy within, a prevalent topic in this age of international terrorism. Those same themes are still visible here, yet it’s not really a spoiler to suggest that those familiar with Abram’s Cloverfield may be able to deduce what type of terror awaits outside the bunker’s impenetrable steel doors.
Whilst submerged within the bunker, 10 Cloverfield Lane presents the audience with a dilemma: does Michelle trust the villain she knows, or take her chances outside? The ambiguity that veils each of these choices is what breeds the film’s simmering levels of suspense. Michelle is an intelligent women, and the audience is forced to keep up with her as she searches for clues to back-up her suspicion that Howard has taken her prisoner. However, Trachtenberg and Abrams don’t made it easy for her, and the action is tightly focused, with clues given away only sparingly. Trachtenberg’s direction is economical, yet fluid and the film’s three central performances are all commendable, particularly Goodman who adds some much needed venom to his otherwise clichéd role as an American conspiracy nut counting down the days till the apocalypse. However, it’s the films detailed production design and tightly woven script that makes 10 Cloverfield Lane such an exhilarating ride. The four cramped rooms of Howard’s bunker quickly become a home, with the limitations of this claustrophobic environ calibrated perfectly to intensify the emotional pitch of a script that culminates in a quivering sense of anxiety.
As a taut pot-boiler, 10 Cloverfield Lane is an unequivocal success, a crafty thriller that keeps the audience guessing up until its final act. Yet sadly, once the boundaries of Michelle’s perilous situation begins to disperse, and the film’s franchise commitments are uncomfortably shoehorned in, the film’s ideological stance becomes a little problematic. What begins as a study of society’s acceptance of a totalitarian existence in a climate of fear, quickly unfurls into fight or flight climax that leaves a bitter taste; asking the audience if they’re the type of person to cower in the darkness or answer the rally to arms and fight this unnamed ‘terror’ head-on. 10 Cloverfield Lane is at its best as an old fashioned, chamber piece. It’s just a shame it had to take place down Abram’s street.