For the first hour and a half or so, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a tense, genuinely frightening thriller with top-notch performances and compelling thematic subtexts. When it reaches its final twenty or so minutes, it inexplicably shifts gears, devolving into a science fiction monster movie the story wasn’t built to support. It’s almost as if the ending to an entirely different movie was spliced in at the last minute. We often hear stories about studio execs or test audiences reacting badly to the filmmakers’ original vision, necessitating new edits, reshoots, or both (Little Shop of Horrors, The Exorcist III, and The Lovely Bones immediately come to mind). I have my suspicions that 10 Cloverfield Lane fell victim to that level of meddling. If not, then director Dan Trachtenberg and his screenwriters need to study up on appropriate cinematic climaxes.
For the time being, let’s forget about the ending and focus on everything leading up to it – everything that made the film so engrossing. We open with a young woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) hurriedly packing her things, with the exception of an engagement ring, and leaving her apartment. As she drives into more desolate areas through the night, unsure about whether or not to continue accepting calls from her now ex (the voice of Bradley Cooper), something causes her to lose control of her car and dramatically crash. When she comes to, she’s in dimly-lit underground cinderblock bunker, lying on a mattress, hooked up to an IV. Her right knee is braced … and cuffed to a metal bar on the wall. She maneuvers a bit to reach her cracked iPhone, only to discover that there’s absolutely no service.
In due time, a man enters her cell, lets her unlock the cuffs, and gives her a pair of crutches to walk around on. This would be Howard (John Goodman). A deeply intense man, he tells Michelle that he took her in after her accident and treated her medically. He also tells her that she can’t leave or try calling her family or the police. There isn’t anywhere left to go, or anyone left to call; the world above has been attacked, and there has been a nuclear chemical fallout – perhaps as a result of an alien invasion. There are select moments when he stresses that she should be more appreciative of him, given the fact that he saved her life and allowed her to stay in his shelter. And she should never think of him as crazy, because “crazy is building the ark after the flood.” He has spent his whole life preparing. He knows what he’s doing.
The more Michelle cautiously becomes familiar with the rooms in Howard’s bunker – several stocked with years worth of food, many padlocked to prevent both entrance and escape, one designed to look just like a rec room – she befriends Emmet (John Gallagher, Jr.), another of Howard’s “guests.” A demure young man with a broken arm, he takes all of Howard’s stern reprimands for disobedience and clumsiness, because after all, Howard did let him into the bunker when the attack happened. We will see that he isn’t always this generous. In the course of opening up to one another, during which both suspicion and trust are on display, Michelle and Emmet will share their regrets, and in turn reveal chapters of their lives that stir within us not just intense feelings but also deep understanding.
This is especially true of Michelle. Let it suffice to say that key events from her childhood shed light on her decision to leave her boyfriend at the start of the movie, even though we never actually saw what transpired between them. Both Howard and his bunker literally and metaphorically encapsulate the realities of being in an abusive relationship; Howard has isolated Michelle, he has asserted that what he says goes, and there are serious consequences if she tries to leave. In the guise of a deeply unsettling thriller, the film is about breaking a cycle that many people, women especially, find themselves in.
That is, up until the final act, at which point the rug is pulled out from under us and the film turns into a technically competent but narratively lacking sci-fi spectacle. This is the only way in which the film can be seen as a “spiritual successor” to 2008’s Cloverfield, which was then and remains now one of the greatest monster movies ever made. Yes, but it was intended to be fun and escapist. 10 Cloverfield Lane initially showed greater ambition than that; it was both frightening and insightful, it had a superb sense of pacing, and it featured performances that were highly compelling. My recommendation is for you to leave the theater before the final act begins. Only then can you say you saw a real first-rate movie.