Stories about the apocalypse are always actually about human nature. From The Walking Dead to Battlestar Galactica, the end of the world brings out people’s true colors. When all the social niceties are stripped away, all that’s left is whatever the storyteller thinks drives us to do what we do.
And that’s the premise 10 Cloverfield Lane operates on, but with a twist: what if you’re not sure if the apocalypse actually happened?
You could say the spoiler is kind of there in the title, but that’s complicated, too. Rather than being a sequel to the 2008 monster movie Cloverfield (both are produced by J.J. Abrams’s Bad Robot Productions), Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane is more like a parallel story with Cloverfield overtones—and, I’d wager, not the last, especially if this does the gangbusters business at the box office it ought to.
There’s been a lot of mystery around the film. Though its production wasn’t a secret, the trailer dropped with its final name not quite two months ago, electrifying the Internet, which instantly started speculating about its connection to Cloverfield. Trachtenberg claims the film doesn’t take place in the same universe as Cloverfield, but Abrams has called it a “spiritual successor.” The two certainly mix genres and subvert expectations gleefully, in a thrill ride that would make for a very fine amusement park concept.
For all that buildup, though, there’s not a ton of substance in 10 Cloverfield Lane. It functions most interestingly as a light allegory, a tale of growth for a woman who shrugs off the men who try to force her into various sorts of captivity. Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s performance as Michelle is both vulnerable and empowering, and the movie pokes at her without exploitation.
She’s also stuck in a very weird situation, one that we see from her perspective: after she drives away from an ugly fight with her boyfriend, she gets in an accident, and wakes up in a cement room, her leg chained to the wall. To say much more would be to ruin the fun, which mostly consists in figuring out what is going on and how—and whether—escape can and should be attempted.
Other characters get added, played by John Goodman (who, if you ask me, should be in all movies) and John Gallagher, Jr., and their little society is like a microcosm of the typical post-apocalypse tale, with some weird twists thrown in. In this version of humanity after the apocalypse (if there even was one), you might play Taboo and eat spaghetti, but monsters lurk everywhere. The trick is to identify them correctly, and to avoid becoming one.
10 Cloverfield Lane is a lot of fun, mostly because it’s Michelle’s story, and you’re trying just as hard as she is to figure out the puzzle—the movie bears the clear mark of Abrams’s obsession with so-called “puzzle boxes.” Everything’s a clue, except when it’s not.
The way the pieces come together is satisfying (if a bit neat). But whether you like the movie’s last act will largely depend on how invested you are in preserving the film’s mystery. But wherever you fall on that spectrum, one thing is certain: 10 Cloverfield Lane is an awfully good time at the movies.
Frightening situations, jump scares and loud noises, the implication of something ugly and weird having happened in the bunker, a couple profanities (including a well-timed f-bomb), bodily harm caused by acid and other chemical substances, blood, and monsters large and small—some psychically frightening, others physically menacing and disgusting. Overall, less terrifying than your average horror film, but perhaps a little more than a sensitive viewer may want to experience. Also, Michelle spends a good bit of the film in a flimsy tank top and the top of her bra sometimes shows, though the film swings hard away from the typical horror film exploitation trope.
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today’s critic and large and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. She is co-author, with Robert Joustra, of How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World(Eerdmans 2016). She tweets @alissamarie.