Warning: Contains spoilers for 10 Cloverfield Lane
Where other science fiction movies have gone bigger, taking down cities and bringing in blue sky lasers of death, 10 Cloverfield Lane tried to go a bit smaller. Originally adapted from a script unrelated to the franchise, this film tries to effortlessly blend the world of Cloverfield with the Room, and only marginally succeeds.
10 Cloverfield Lane hyper-fixates on a trio of people surviving the alien apocalypse brought down from gas-spewing creatures that are, like most movie monsters, apparently made entirely of sphincters. For about 75% of the movie, excluding an opening scene and a concluding fight sequence, you, as well as the cast, are trapped inside of a comfortable living room/bomb shelter. The entire movie could be adapted into a stage play and lose almost none of its content.
Due to this narrow focus, the movie features the talents of only three actors: John Goodman (Howard), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Michelle), and John Gallagher, Jr. (Emmett) as they attempt to live with each other inside of a doomsday preppers mysterious hideout.
Where this bomb shelter bottle movie ultimately succeeds is actually in the form of its tension. The movie is consistently tense; so much so that even a brief lull in this tautness feels like restringing the bow. Every brow raise from Howard is a prelude to violence, every moment of kindness and family bonding is just there to destroy that nuclear family.
The failure is in the character of Howard. The mystery of 10 Cloverfield Lane should’ve been whether or not the aliens were real, but the mystery becomes whether or not Howard is actually a kidnapping murderer of young women. We’re led to believe very early on that he is a Josef Fritzl type, kidnapping and imprisoning young women in his bunker. The film quickly backs off from this and pretends that all is well.
Howard is not a violent man (even after his tableside temper tantrum that was easily one of the most uncomfortable film experiences since The Babadook), he is really a dad-like figure who just wants to take care of these goofy kids. His excuse for his behavior is so slim and his anger so hair trigger that it becomes difficult to forget long enough for the big reveal: he is actually a murdering kidnapper! Shock and awe, cue the motivation for the second half of the movie.
The concept – the real danger lurks inside the bunker and not without – is powerful, but the character of Howard, with his domestic violence darkness, never comes back to being goofy and fun-loving. The casting was smart; John Goodman delivers both as a beloved father and a scary figure. You could argue that he works so well as a monster because he is so recognizable as a father figure from his long stint on Roseanne. But once that domestic violence button is pushed – the dinner table a familiar enough battleground for this drama – it becomes too difficult to pull back again. The writing suffers attempting to ease us out of our fear, but it’s far too late. This decision, that Howard is actually a violent man, ultimately derails the film even as it is necessary to pushing the plot forward.
This is a pity because, again, the concept is strong. Amping up the violence slowly, along with that tension, would’ve made this one of the strongest science fiction films in years, but the consistent, discomforting tension, made worse by the film trying to play an odd game of peekaboo, as well as the molotov-cocktail sequence from the conclusion, cheapen the thrill and ultimately discredit the movie as a whole.