Overview: A young woman wakes up after a car crash in an underground bunker, with a man who tells her that a chemical attack has poisoned the atmosphere. Paramount Pictures; 2016; Rated PG-13; 105 minutes.
Big Brother: I think JJ Abrams is making his Before trilogy. Every nine years, Richard Linklater graces us with a new entry in that series, checking up on the lives of his lovebird protagonists. 10 Cloverfield Lane comes eight years after Cloverfield. Both films were released at the beginning of a president’s final term in office, and both films take the nation’s pulse. They look back on the era that’s drawing to a close to assess American anxieties, and to dramatize them in the form of…well, let’s not give anything away. But like the poster says, monsters come in many forms.
Cloverfield was all about America in the wake of 9/11. The panicky first-person camerawork channeled a nationwide neurosis over devastating violence perpetrated by forces we could not see or understand. 10 Cloverfield Lane, in turn, is about Obama’s America. The fear and loathing we so easily threw at faceless evil overseas (or out of the sea) turned inwards. Government surveillance amplified paranoia. If our own government doesn’t trust us, then how can we trust anyone? In this film, even an icon of childhood innocence like Santa Claus is reconstructed as a police state tyrant, in a way reminiscent of the scene in Inglourious Basterds which rewrote King Kong as a story about the slave trade. Cloverfield’s tagline might as well be “Never Forget”; memories good and bad are captured forever in the digital ether. 10 Cloverfield Lane could take another catchphrase from its subject decade: “If You See Something, Say Something.”
Emphasis On Brother: With Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), 10 Cloverfield Lane gives us the consummate heroine for the 2010s. She’s clever, she’s resourceful, and she doesn’t trust anyone. From the instant she wakes up in the bunker, she gets to work on a plan to escape. It’s nice to see a film that doesn’t confuse “Strong Female Character” to mean literal, physical strength. Michelle is hardly a weakling, but her real strength is her quick thinking and MacGyver-like craftiness. Winstead’s face is always burning just under the surface with thought.
The other thing that makes her the consummate her the consummate heroine for the 2010s is that she’s a heroine. Lesser filmmakers would have missed the opportunity to explore the gender implications of a woman waking up in a bunker and being forced to live with a man she may not be able to trust. 10 Cloverfield Lane goes all-in on this, exposing patriarchal structures as rotting relics. “You could start to show me a little appreciation,” whines Howard (John Goodman) as he tosses Michelle a key to the handcuff keeping her chained to a pipe. Howard’s kind of the “nice guy” archetype, a snivelling loser who thinks he’s owed attention from women and gets violently jealous when a woman turns her attention to another man. The specter of 1984’s “Big Brother” is invoked at least once, but the gendered nature of that title resonates deeply.
Both Eyes Open: Cloverfield was made immediately infamous for its frantic shaky-cam aesthetic, but as mentioned, it befit a film about Bush-era anxiety. 10 Cloverfield Lane abandons the found-footage conceit. Its camera is steady, its compositions are careful, so much that it occasionally feels like overcorrection. Bush-era anxiety was followed by Obama-era anger. The past eight years have been a slow boil, and the country is finally starting to bubble over. So goes 10 Cloverfield Lane – every frame is rife with tension, and the tidy compositions add to the nerviness. The inevitable bursts are as terrifying as they are cathartic. I was fortunate enough to see the film in IMAX, where every sudden bang and crash is amplified.
This isn’t a film that milks its jump scares, but it helps that none of the scares are fake-outs. There’s no cat hiding in a closet to make us jump and then giggle nervously at the lack of a threat. When this film makes us jump, it’s for good reason. Perhaps that’s because the most terrifying lesson from the past eight years is that our paranoia is based in reality. We do have things to be afraid of, and our understanding of them has become disturbingly clear since Cloverfield rendered them in the form of a giant monster. Maybe they’re pounding down our door, or maybe they’re cowering behind the door with us. Sure, you can’t trust the people next to you, 10 Cloverfield Lane admits. But are you willing to take your chances out there instead? Cloverfield’s fear of the “other” hasn’t gone away in eight years. In 2016, we have to measure it against the fear of ourselves.
Wrap-Up: 10 Cloverfield Lane is a tight and thrilling psychoanalysis of 2010s America.