“10 Cloverfield Lane” is not a sequel to “Cloverfield”. It started off as a script about two people trapped in an underground shelter with a man who may or may not be crazy and may or not be lying about a tragedy that has befallen the world, and then was re-written (both before and after principle photography) to include some sci-fi elements, thus making the word “Cloverfield” a sort of cue that sci-fi goings-on are about. The result is a film that, for the first hour, is pretty damn wonderful. Then we get a third act that feels Frankenstein-ed on and, while it works thematically, it does not at all work tonally.
Let’s talk about themes. “10 Cloverfield Lane” is in some ways about choosing between the lesser of two evils, and in some ways about the question of whether the devil you do know is better than the devil you don’t know. The film is also very much an exploration of abusive relationships. This will all need elaboration. Our main character is Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). She runs away from her fiancé in the middle of the night and, while driving, is hit by car. The accident knocks her unconscious and she wakes up in an underground bunker, chained to a wall, and hooked up to an IV. A man comes in named Howard (John Goodman, in an overall phenomenal performance). Howard claims that some sort of event happened on the surface the night of the accident. He doesn’t know if it was nuclear or chemical, but alarm bells in Michelle’s head go off when Howard suggests aliens were a possibility. In any case, Howard says the air outside is poisoned and they can’t leave. He eventually unlocks Michelle and the threat that he’s kidnapped her for some sort of “Room”-like reason disappears. Still, there’s something off about Howard.
Also in the bunker is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a man who was one of the workers that was hired to build the bunker for Howard. He claims he saw a weird flash of light and forced his way into the bunker, thinking something was going down, partially corroborating Howard’s story. Emmett is a simple guy, but not dumb, and ultimately seems to have a good heart. As time goes on, the three of them have make a home in the bunker, but it’s never entirely a happy place. Howard insists that rules be obeyed. He has outbursts and uses fear to keep Emmett, and especially Michelle, in line. He phrases things in a way to inspire shame and guilt in Michelle, and makes himself out to be the victim even when he’s acting crazy, violent, or out of line. Basically, Howard exhibits many of the qualities an abuser will have toward the partner or family member they are abusing. Later, we learn that Michelle grew up with an abusive father, and the film will make us question the relationship between Howard and his estranged daughter. Howard is sometimes an object of sympathy, and is sometimes heartlessly cruel, and I imagine the abused can view their abusers as both thanks to manipulation or Stockholm Syndrome or both.
The central mystery of the film is what exactly, if anything, happened to the surface world, and how truthful and/or crazy is Howard. As a small, isolated, tightly focused character drama, this film really, really works. You question everything, clues are given at a nice clip to keep changing your perception of the situation, and new twists and mysteries come up at times that show that this film is about as well-paced and expertly written as one could hope. While the original screenplay for the film was written by Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken, it was heavily re-written by Damien Chazelle, who wrote and directed the excellent film “Whiplash”. “Whiplash”, oddly enough, was also about an abusive relationship, which in that film involved a teacher and pupil. Whether this will continue to be a theme in Chazelle’s work remains to be seen, but he certainly understand the dynamic enough to write about it as well as I’ve seen any screenwriter capture it.
As things in the bunker get tenser, Michelle is faced with the decision of whether life in the bunker under Howard is worse than risking escaping to the surface, where she knows something bad awaits her, but doesn’t know the extent or severity of it. Howard is the devil she knows, and the outside is the devil she does not know. She has to decide which is worse, and maybe she’ll reach a breaking point where nothing could be worse than life in the bunker. She has to decide which is the lesser of two evils. Sorry for the cheap shot, but I wonder if the Bunker is Trump and the outside is Hillary, or vice versa. The point is, sometimes no good option is on the table, and one is forced to figure out which bad option is worse. There is no Bernie Sanders option in “10 Cloverfield Lane”.
That last half hour doesn’t ruin the film, but it does diminish the film’s quality. Granted, the major themes of the film remain intact, even the abuse theme (escaping from an abusive relationship can still dump you into a scary and uncertain world with a challenging path ahead of you), but after spending an hour with a tight, tense, character-driven movie, the last half hour feels like someone changed the channel on you. It doesn’t help that it’s riddled with logical gaps (should the problem be solved as easily as throwing a Molotov cocktail?) and feels like a worse movie in execution anyway (bad one-liners and far-fetched science abound). Still, the obvious third act sell-out to get money (this film would never has made as much money without the “Cloverfield” label….too high-brow and smart) is less egregious than “World War Z” and it’s Pepsi commercial finale, and they did maintain thematic consistency, so that’s something.
If the third act had followed the first hour in a more tonally cohesive manner, this would have been one of the best films of this still early year. Instead, the third act degrades the quality of the film to simply being slightly above average. I hope the original ending finds its place on the inevitable DVD release. B.