***The following contains possible spoilers for 10 Cloverfield Lane.***
Monster movies force us to face our fears. They tuck us into the recesses of dark closets where, deep in the shadows, our personal demons lurk, waiting to confront us. Ultimately, great monster movies aren’t just scary because of the tentacles, scales, or dripping gore; monster movies frighten us because they tell us something we’d rather not acknowledge about ourselves. Frankenstein places our fear of the outsider center-stage; World War Z reminds us of real-life diseases that could explode into pandemics. Perhaps we flock to these movies because by encountering those fears from the safety of a darkened theatre, we are better able to cope with them in the bright and terrible world.
When you encounter a monster on Cloverfield Lane, you discover a hard truth about the connection between our personal fears and our instinct for self-preservation.10 Cloverfield Lane is, as J. J. Abrams describes it, the “spiritual successor” to Cloverfield, a movie he produced in 2008. As such, you might expect it to be, like its predecessor, a monster movie. And it is; it’s just not the kind you think it is. Like all great monster movies, 10 Cloverfield Lane forces us to confront our deepest fears; but the monsters that prompt that inner confrontation are not what you expect. And unlike the external, large-scale societal problems genres like horror and science fiction often explore, the problems addressed in 10 Cloverfield Lane are largely struggles within individual souls.
When you encounter a monster on Cloverfield Lane, you discover a hard truth about the connection between our personal fears and our instinct for self-preservation. In fact, Michelle and Emmett’s encounter with a true monster begins to hint at their redemption.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Michelle, who, when we first meet her, is cramming clothes into a suitcase and leaving her engagement ring behind. Then she hits the Louisiana highway to a score of frenetic strings reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Psycho, avoiding her fiancé’s calls along the way. As in Psycho, this young woman is running. Unlike the character in Psycho, Michelle, by all appearances, is a good girl—albeit one reluctant to face the complications of a serious relationship.
Thanks to circumstances I won’t ruin by recounting here, Michelle soon finds herself shackled to a pipe in a dank cinderblock room. Director Dan Trachtenberg lingers for a nearly unbearable time on Michelle as she realizes her situation. Winstead perfectly captures the terror such a realization would induce; every desperate expression that flashes across her face seems to signify another horrifying, possible explanation for her predicament.
We learn that Michelle has become the captive of Howard (brilliantly played by John Goodman). Howard informs her that she is the beneficiary of his good graces; she is not his prisoner but his ward. There’s been an attack (nuclear? chemical? alien?), and the air above is unbreathable and maybe/probably face-melty. They’ll wait out the next one to two years underground in Howard’s bunker.
You wouldn’t want to spend one or two hours with Howard. Neither does Michelle. But after a series of escape attempts—she’s running away again—Michelle almost seems to settle into bunker life. Perhaps Howard, though paranoid and bizarre, is at least right about the above-world devastation.
Michelle befriends her one other, non-Howard bunker-mate, Emmett, whom Howard employed to construct his doomsday fortress. Emmett fought his way into the bunker shortly after some (supposedly?) cataclysmic, civilization-ending flash, and Howard reluctantly allowed him to stay. Emmett is charming and mildly hilarious, played by John Gallagher, Jr. with all the charisma of his Newsroom character and none of the smarm. In an extended dialogue with Michelle, we learn that Emmett was given a chance to leave the safe confines of rural Louisiana thanks to an athletic scholarship. But fear got the better of him; Emmett intentionally squandered the opportunity. Michelle and Emmett’s aversion to confrontation and fear-facing will make their remaining bunker time all the more…well, horrific.
Early in the movie, Michelle and Emmett realize that Howard is quietly unhinged and constantly teetering on the edge of a blowup. And what blowups they are! Goodman knows how to utilize his ample frame for terror, leaning into the victims of his tirades with claustrophobic effect. In fact, the relentless tension of 10 Cloverfield Lane depends almost entirely upon the claustrophobic environment of the bunker. After Michelle and Emmett uncover clues to Howard’s past, they take surreptitious action against their captor. It’s a stressful series of scenes. Michelle and Emmett must pull their plan together right under Howard’s nose. Every conversation seems too loud (can’t Howard hear them?), and every time Michelle and Emmett hide evidence of their subterfuge, Howard lumbers in barely a split-second later.
It’s no spoiler to say things go awry. (This is a scary movie after all.) But as things go wrong externally, things begin to go right in the souls of Michelle and Emmett. Suddenly, they’re less fearful, bolder.
This is where 10 Cloverfield Lane offers the true thrill of a good monster movie; it confronts its protagonists, and its audience, with hard truths. Michelle and Emmett, with their track records of running, hiding, and generally squandering opportunities involving risk (marriage, college), aren’t the types to hatch crazy escape plans. It would be easier—and more in character—for them to just bide their time with Howard. (That version of this movie might be equally entertaining, actually—if it included more scenes like the board game sequence of the real-life film.)
But Howard is just too creepy, and as the disturbing truth of the big guy’s past reveals itself, Michelle and Emmett—in the interest of self-preservation—do the unthinkable, for them at least: they take action. But soon, their actions are not merely about self-preservation; Michelle and Emmett begin to consider one another with something that looks an awful lot like the love of Jesus—other-centered, self-sacrificial, redemptive.
Love is scary. Love, after all, put Jesus on the cross. Love is risk. Until the bunker, Michelle and Emmett have been runners; they’ve run away from challenges that ask them to take their eyes off of themselves, that ask them to take risks. Fear has bested love in the lives of these two. But Michelle and Emmett’s encounter with a true monster begins to hint at their redemption.
Michelle can’t know it—she’s just trying to survive—but as she confronts the monsters on Cloverfield Lane, she is facing down the fears that have kept her from risking the pain that comes with love. In the final scene, she is given one last choice—love or fear, risk or run. No one would judge her if she chose the latter. She’s already met her demons, already confronted the monsters. When Michelle makes her choice, we are implicitly asked which we will make for ourselves.