“10 Cloverfield Lane” is a mess of contradictions and ambitious almost to a fault. Those aren’t necessarily bad characteristics to have, especially the second one. I’d much rather have a film whose reach exceeded its grasp than a film that doesn’t reach at all. But while its ambitions and all-over-the-place feel do make for an interesting and ultimately enjoyable movie, like most of producer J.J. Abrams’ projects, I walk away feeling a bit let down.
One thing I do love about this movie is it makes the job of plot summarizing pretty easy. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winsted) has just left her long-term boyfriend. We don’t know why, but we don’t really need to. Making her way down the highway, she gets into a car accident and wakes up in what is essentially a dungeon, chained to a pipe on the wall with an IV stuck in her arm. She soon finds she’s under the watchful eye of Howard (John Goodman), the owner of the underground doomsday shelter she is in, and who claims to have saved her life. They share the shelter with a young man named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) and… Well, going any further would spoil the plot a bit too much and part of the fun of this kind of movie is watching the mystery unravel for yourself. See, what’d I tell you? Easy, right? Suffice to say, if you’re familiar with J.J. Abrams’ previous work (Lost, Alias, Super 8, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), you’ll know that there are plenty of twists and turns from there.
And that is where the contradictions start. Abrams is only a producer on this film, not its writer or director. So is it fair to call this film his? I think so. Director Dan Trachtenberg is essentially a stand-in for Abrams, hired on the strength of his admittedly impressive fan film based off the Portal video game series. He’s more a working craftsman who makes the product for the guys with big ideas, not so much an artist who shapes the work he’s given and imprints his own personality on it. That may seem unfair, but between the handheld camera, blue-tinted lighting, frenetic editing, and heavy-handedly suspenseful music, Trachtenberg apes Abrams’ style to such an extent, his filmmaking so lacking in any real spark or imagination, that this really could have been directed by anyone. Nothing distinguishes this as “A Dan Trachtenberg Film.”
But there’s plenty that establishes this as a “J.J. Abrams” film. Like I previously mentioned, there are plenty of plot twists and excitement to be had. Most of Abrams previous works have at least elements of thrillers, even if they aren’t outright thrillers themselves. The big thing that distinguishes Abrams’ projects though is what he calls his “mystery box” approach to storytelling; an intriguing premise where just enough information is kept from the audience so that it strings us along and keeps us engaged. It’s a pretty standard technique in suspense/thriller fiction, so it’s not really unique to Abrams but he is great at it. At least, he’s great at making the box. It’s when he opens the box that he runs into problems. Abrams is great at creating mystery and suspense, but not at following up on it, on giving us a satisfying reveal. It always leaves us scratching our heads, wanting more, prompting shrugs and head scratches rather than awe. His openings are often intriguing, his middle sections feel like they’re on autopilot and the final acts often feel tacked on. And that certainly applies here. The final act of “10 Cloverfield” turns what was initially a tense, interesting thriller about a woman who may or may not be held captive into… something else. Again, I won’t spoil anything, but Abrams fans also know he has a devotion to another genre: sci-fi. That’s where things get confusing. But also where they get interesting.
But again, I don’t want to spoil anything and it sounds like I’m being too negative, so lets focus on the film’s virtues. For one, the performances are good especially since there are really only three to speak of. John Gallagher, Jr. is fine and likeable as Emmett. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is also solid as Michelle, but never really stands out. This isn’t her fault though; it’s the script’s. She gets very little to do besides be terrified or grittily determined. There’s no real nuance or subjectivity to her character, and as a result, both her performance and the film suffer. There are so many ways in which the filmmakers are trying to make this movie something different, something more than your typical thriller. You know what would have helped with that? Make your female lead three-dimensional, not an audience surrogate. Give her subjectivity, a voice and a point of view. Make her a human being, not just another helpless, victimized girl, so common, generic and banal in horror and suspense films. Winstead should be better than she is here, but the film does her and Michelle a disservice.
No, the real standout here, as usual, is John Goodman. He brilliantly but subtly imbues what could have been another clichéd, villainous, domineering man with anxieties, paranoia and humanity. Honestly, Goodman is what pulls the film together, giving it some much needed menace and thematic potency. Howard represents a specific kind of man that has recently come to prominence in America, but has always been lurking in the shadows waiting for validation and the right time to announce himself and take cultural prominence. He is, in a sense, the most primitive of human beings, solely focused on survival, always on the lookout for a threat. He still thinks humans are essentially animals who should only be concerned with safety and creating offspring. This fittingly turns him into a kind of animal, with all the violence and possessive sexism that implies.
The film treats this type of man critically, like the villain that he is. Based off this, and where Michelle ends up at the films conclusion (again, no spoilers), the movie is undoubtedly trying to espouse a kind of feminism, showing how resourceful, brave and powerful women can be in the face of, and in contrast to, the type of men Howard represents, the type of men who have come dominate a fringe of American culture. But the fact that the most complex character in the film is still the chauvinistic male villain, as opposed to our ostensible heroine, is telling and prevents the film from reaching its feminist goals. In many ways, we’re made to understand Howard better than we are Michelle. It’s as if the film’s idea of gender equality is really just figuratively pumping its fist and shouting “Girl Power!” while Michelle does some plucky Macgyver-meets-Mission: Impossible escape tactics, while simultaneously denying her any semblance of individuality.
Abrams is one of many filmmakers today who seems indebted to a style of Hollywood filmmaking prominent in the late-1970’s through the 1980’s, the kinds of films perfected by James Cameron, George Lucas and (especially) Steven Spielberg. Movies where the female love interest was just as tough and plucky as the male hero. These women also lacked any interiority and “10 Cloverfield Lane” seems only to have moved this type of secondary character to the center of the film without letting her evolve or develop. Someone should let Abrams and co. know that the 80’s are over and both feminism and cinema has moved on, their goals have changed and their vision expanded.
And so we come back to where we began this review. This film is ambitious, but it’s also a mess, contradicting itself when it matters most and committing self-sabotage which prevents it from reaching those ambitions. It’s not like the film is trying to change the world; at the end of the day it just wants to be a satisfying bit of blockbuster entertainment. And that’s fine. But the film also wants to be more, something great, something that enters the collective imagination, like a Spielberg film. In the end, it’s just another Hollywood thriller. It’s got a rather surprising final act, and a plot that makes more sense than most. But it’s ultimately a J.J. Abrams movie. To some of you, that may be enough to convince you that it’s worth the price of admission. It certainly doesn’t mean the film is bad. But to me, it means it’s a fun popcorn flick that wants to be more, but lacks the self-awareness and follow-through to do so. If you’ve got nothing else to do, nothing else in the theaters looks good, or you’re just in the mood for a white-knuckle thriller with some sci-fi twists, by all means, check it out. Just don’t expect to see something you’ve never seen before.