Toward the end of “10 Cloverfield Lane,” a disciplined thriller about three people sheltered in a furnished bunker from an unknown disaster outside, the main character, Michelle, finds herself in a kill-or-be-killed situation. She is unarmed, and things are starting to look pretty grim, until a nearby bottle of single malt scotch catches her eye. Rather than taking one last invigorating swig before the end — which, given what she’s been through, would have been a perfectly acceptable way to go — she instead fashions herself a molotov cocktail.
I can think of no better metaphor for the movie. Directed with surprising self-assurance by newcomer Dan Trachtenberg, “10 Cloverfield Lane” is a finely-brewed concoction waiting to explode, a burst of light at the end of a dark tunnel.
The gloom is both literal and psychological. The bunker’s generator has a way of going in and out, and the motives of the primary resident, a survivalist named Howard, are always shrouded in darkness. Did he kidnap Michelle, as is suggested by the concrete cell she wakes up in early in the film after she’s been in a car crash, or did he rescue her on the side of the road from a worse fate? We are limited to her perspective, and so we aren’t sure whether to take Howard at his word when he says the air outside is contaminated because of a catastrophic attack — Aliens? Russians? Who knows? — that Michelle never witnessed.
The presence of another person, the goodnatured Emmet (John Gallagher Jr.), who volunteered to join Howard and wait out the disaster, suggests that the man is telling the truth, even if he is a little unpleasant to be around. Howard is played by John Goodman, and he is endearing and frightening. The sense of unease that develops as he wavers between those emotions is the movie’s main source of suspense. And it is enough to sustain the entire movie. Goodman, with his burly frame and gruff, melodic voice, in every moment evokes a tenderness and the threat of violence. He may be a hothead, but considering that he likes to rewatch “Pretty in Pink” is a comforting sign that he is a softie at heart.
At least that is the hope. Michelle, played Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is no stranger to violent patriarchs. Her father was abusive, we learn early in the film. But this made her a strong person, not a broken one, and provided her with the emotional and practical instincts of self-preservation. She has a fight in her, and she actively investigates the circumstances of her present condition, devising a plan for escape if Howard turns out to be more monstrous than he is letting on. Winstead is great in the role, giving Michelle a fiery resilience.
“10 Cloverfield Lane,” it should be noted, is loosely affiliated with “Cloverfield,” that shaky cam monster movie from 2008, in which a group of friends flee a giant creature rampaging through New York City. “Cloverfield” was distinctly a genre movie, so deftly satisfying the requirements of the creature feature that all the mystery surrounding it in the lead up to its release turned out to be irrelevant. We had seen this type of movie before, regardless of its modern flourishes.
The same is true of the new film, and so I have no tolerance for people who cover their ears at the dinner table to avoid hearing a spoiler. The two films share not so much a plot point — though there is that — but a thematic core revealed through the conventions of a genre.
A genre — whether we’re talking about a romantic comedy, a horror movie, or an action film — is a type of widely recognized aesthetic form employed as a shortcut to evoke universal conditions. Horror movies are about human beings confronting and coping with death, often its literal manifestation, like the masked killer in “Halloween.” The giant monster movie, on the other hand, can evoke the anxieties of living in a world of existential threats. “Godzilla” can be interpreted as a metaphor for the catastrophic power of nuclear weapons.
“10 Cloverfield Lane” may look like a lean psychodrama, with its one main setting and only three characters, but it is just as much a monster movie as its predecessor, because all monster movies, by definition, are also survival stories.