Review: ‘10 Cloverfield Lane’ Is Secretly A Great Film About Today’s War On Terror

Like the bunker it takes place in, there’s more going on under the surface than you might expect.

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Cloverfield was one of those movies that had enough going for it — clever marketing, a brilliant teaser trailer, a mashup of found footage horror and monster movies — to linger in the public consciousness even if, let’s face it, the film itself was kinda forgettable. What was most memorable though, was how unashamedly (and effectively) it leveraged the imagery of September 11 in the context of commercial cinema. It essentially re-enacted the infamous terrorist attack in the form of a huge dang monster.

After its release in 2008, this was a common talking point for critics. Annalee Newitz at i09 claimed it “push[ed] raw historical tragedy right into our eyeballs and then deftly distract[ed] us with old-fashioned entertainment”. A survivor of the New York attack described it as the closest she’d seen to “what 9/11 was like on an emotional level“.

Now, nearly a decade later, we have 10 Cloverfield Lane (“from producer J.J. Abrams”, the advertising blares, in case you missed the link). Is this a direct sequel to the 2008 film? A loosely-connected prequel, à la Prometheus? Or is this shameless marketing rejiggery exploiting the Cloverfield ‘brand’? Abrams has described it as a “spiritual successor” which… isn’t really an answer, is it?

Part of the fun of the film, is trying to figure out the answer to these questions. And, given that the preview I attended sternly warned us not to “reveal the ending”, I’ll play along and keep mum on important plot particulars. But what I can say is that this analogy for terrorism is definitely worth keeping in mind.

What The Hell Is Going On?

Without spoiling anything, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is on a frantic country drive — the kind where you take a bottle of scotch and leave the engagement ring — when she’s driven off the road by a pick-up truck. She wakes up in the middle of the first Saw movie, shackled to a pipe in a non-descript bricked-up room. There are no windows, one ominous metal door, and she soon discovers she’s the “guest” of one Howard Stambler (John Goodman). He ominously explains that he’s saved her life. There was an “attack”, he says. Outside this bunker everybody is dead and the air is poison.

Michelle is sceptical. Who wouldn’t be? We’ve all seen Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But the screenplay — a spec script by John Campbell and Matt Stuecken given a tidy up by Whiplash’s Damien Chazelle — keeps throwing out new questions which add doubt (and, thankfully, it answers some of the old ones).

Some of this is provided by Michelle’s fellow guest, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr, following his Short Term 12 co-star Brie Larson into the ‘trapped in a room’ sub-genre). Emmett says he fought his way into the bunker after having seen an explosion “like something you read in the Bible”. When Michelle makes a run for escape, she’s met with a bloodied woman outside, also desperate to get in. Remembering the title, we begin to think that Howard — aptly described by Emmett as “a black belt in conspiracy theory” — maybe isn’t as crazy as he seems.

First-time director Dan Trachtenberg finds just the right pace to keep us on our toes through all this. The restless tone — one minute we’re in a psychodrama, the next a thriller, then all of a sudden we’re in full-on horror mode — is supported by the tightly-wound screenplay (which only really stumbles when it tries for banter). You’re not just trying to figure out what’s going on in 10 Cloverfield Lane — you’re trying to figure out what kind of movie you’re watching too.

Whether you find that frustrating or exciting likely depends on your temperament as well as your ability to suspend disbelief as things get sillier in the back half. My relatively high tolerance for implausible plotting meant that I was engaged throughout. That’s largely thanks to Goodman, who gives a committed, physical performance as a man who’s resentful, resigned and mysterious in roughly equal measure. He’s anything but subtle — it reminded me of his work in Barton Fink more than once — but this isn’t a movie that warrants subtlety.

The Unknown Unknown

As a zippy genre film, 10 Cloverfield Lane is mostly successful, delivering thrills on a comparatively modest budget (it cost an estimate $5 million: a fifth of Cloverfield’s budget). Carrying on from its “spiritual predecessor”, it also finds room for this ongoing subtext about America and terrorism — one that’s more coherent than the arguable emotional exploitation Cloverfield leaned on.

You see, the position Michelle (and maybe Emmett) find themselves in, trapped in Howard’s bunker, is analogous to the situation that Americans and much of the Western world find themselves in the shadow of September 11, in the middle of a so-called “War on Terror”. Michelle’s freedom is curtailed. Any right to privacy is eroded entirely — Howard even monitors her bathroom usage when she first awakens. These are sacrifices justified by Howard as a necessary measure to ensure her safety. He’s a more outwardly sinister Donald Rumsfeld asking the American public to trust him on “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns”.

Perhaps the threat is real. As mentioned, Emmett supports his story of a distant cataclysm, and there are eviscerated livestock seen outside providing some convincing supplementary evidence. Or perhaps Howard’s exaggerating to suit his own agenda. But even if he isn’t, that doesn’t justify his possessive behaviour, nor explain the dubiousness of his past behaviour. Where should Michelle draw the line between her own physical safety and her personal independence?

Lurking beneath 10 Cloverfield Lane’s genre trappings is an anxiety about how we, as a society, should respond to the threat of terrorism. This isn’t another film toppling buildings or filling streets with smoke to remind us of the shock of September 11, it’s a film about today. It’s a film about the decisions we have to make in a democratic society, where terrorism is both a legitimate threat and an ideological boogieman used to justify an erosion of basic rights.

You won’t find any explicit reference to this in the movie, mind you. The closest we get to politics is Howard ranting about “Russkies” developing new weapons and Emmett’s confusion between South and North Korea. You’re more likely to walk out of the movie debating the specifics of its final act and how it does — or doesn’t — connect to Cloverfield than engage in a detailed reflection on the global response to the threat of terrorism. Still, like Howard’s bunker, there’s more going on under the surface than you might expect.

10 Cloverfield Lane is in cinemas now.

Dave Crewe is a Brisbane-based teacher and freelance film critic who spends way too much of his time watching movies. Read his stuff at ccpopculture or pester him at@dacrewe.