[Major 10 Cloverfield Lane plot spoilers below]
10 Cloverfield Lane is what would happen if Brie Larson’s Room suddenly turned into Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds.
10 Cloverfield Lane feels like Tyler Turden invaded the projection booth and replaced the final reel with the ending from a completely different movie (if movies were still projected as individual reels, of course).
10 Cloverfield Lane is an Oscar-caliber thriller that quite suddenly turns into a summer blockbuster.
10 Cloverfield Lane is like…
OK, we get it! 10 Cloverfield Lane has a jarring ending, but does it still kind of work as a whole? Yes, but it’s really a shame about that ending. More on that later.
10 Cloverfield Lane introduces us to Michelle (Mary-Elizabeth Winstead) as she’s plunging headlong into the night. Director Drew Trachtenberg’s overhead camera peers down on her car ala Psycho and The Shining and Bear McCreary’s brassy score bludgeons us over the head to the point of annoyance. Michelle’s spurned spouse (voiced by Bradley Cooper!) calls and begs for her return, but before she can muster a response she’s driven off the road in a completely disorienting crash sequence. It’s at this point that Saul Bass-esque opening credits formally welcome us to this movie, and what ensues is around 85% psychological thriller and 15% sci-fi craziness.
Michelle wakes up in a nightmarish scenario, handcuffed to a bed in a locked room of an underground bunker, an IV drip attached to her arm and medical brace on her knee. Gradually, she meets her burly captor Howard (John Goodman), and is understandably skeptical when he claims an apocalyptic event perpetrated by the Russians, North Koreans or possibly even extraterrestrials has poisoned the air above ground. She also meets the third party of their trio, Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), an affable, if somewhat dimwitted blue collar kind of guy who helped Howard build the bunker. They have a fully working kitchen and bathroom as well as an entertainment area with a TV, which is good because they’ll have to stay down there at least a year to wait for the air to be breathable again.
Michelle and Emmett bond as two people with deep regrets and dreams deferred while Howard creepily infantilizes Michelle as a substitute for his presumed dead daughter. However, the true joy comes from watching the mystery unfold. Why should Michelle trust anything Howard says? Is Emmett hiding something too? And what’s the deal with the visible bruises on his chest and sling holding up his right arm? Each time Michelle gets what appears to be a concrete answer to one of her questions a new mystery pops up.
This scenario is expertly constructed by the writers (Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and Damien Chazelle) and perfectly executed by the director and three performers, with special praise reserved for Goodman, as per io9’s review:
The great pleasure of watching 10 Cloverfield Lane comes mainly from watching John Goodman’s masterfully weird performance, as a childlike control freak who may or may not have been right to prepare for an apocalypse. Goodman’s usual affability is almost completely subsumed inside a set of twitchy mannerisms, and he manages to keep you completely spellbound by his mercurial behavior—without ever overplaying it.
Howard’s early outbursts of anger and violence make us so fearful of him that it becomes funny. We laugh at our own defied expectations when he actually behaves normally, particularly when the three sit down to play a game of Password.
When Howard finally morphs into the monster we expected 10 Cloverfield Lane becomes a slasher movie with Howard the disfigured killer (thanks to a vat of acid) and Michelle the final girl, staging her great escape with a makeshift hazmat suit tied to her ankle as she crawls through the airducts. His booming voice and bowie knife are ever at her heels (or right next to her head), but she eludes his grasp and triumphantly exits the bunker, the fresh daylight bouncing off her homemade gas mask.
There’s still the little matter of the apocalyptic event which put her in that bunker to begin with though. Her moment in the daylight is her own version of Andy Dufresne feeling the rain on his face after fleeing Shawshank, but it’s fleeting. She’d been abused by her father as a child and grew up always running away from her and other people’s problems. She was damn well not going to become Howard’s victims. However, what happens next? Isn’t society pretty much gone?
The movie briefly toys with the idea that everything might be okay. The helicopter noises they could hear from the bunker are instantly explained by the sight of a military helicopter in the distance. The notion of the air being toxic is dispelled by the sound of birds chirping and other animals making noises, clearly not killed by some gas. Something definitely happened. After all, Michelle didn’t simply dream up that woman with deteriorating skin who begged to be let into the bunker earlier in the movie. However, maybe Howard exaggerated the extent of the attack. Maybe the threat has passed.
Nope. It was aliens. 10 Cloverfield Lane takes a hard left turn into Spielberg’s War of the Worlds as Michelle fights off CGI monsters and hides from a human-harvesting spacecraft. After such an intense chamber drama the inclusion of aliens who attempt to swallow Michelle whole feels completely inorganic, as if the writers turned the ending over to their kids and went along with anything they said, ala Axe Cop.
It could come down to good old fashioned studio tinkering. According to Reddit, Paramount had a finished version of this film under the name Valencia, and the ending entailed Michelle fleeing for her life but realizing Walter was right about it being a nuclear attack when she sees a decimated big city skyline in the distance. However, to make it more commercial the studio ordered rewrites and reshoots to turn Valencia into a spiritual sequel to Cloverfield, and Damien Chazelle added everything with the aliens.
Trachtenberg is full-on denying any such speculation, telling SlashFilm, “No, the movie you watch today is very much the movie that I read when I first read the script.” io9 got some more details out of him, “The fun of the story for me was this wishful fulfillment of all the times you would go see a movie. You get in the cars afterwards and you’re like ‘That was great, but wouldn’t it have been crazy if at the end THIS happened?’ And we finally did THAT. We finally made a movie doing that crazy thing you would have pitched in the car.”
It’s likely that the early drafts of the script had the nuclear attack ending, and the aliens had been added by the time Trachtenberg joined. To be fair, even though the ending seems inconsistent with the rest of the film and deeply derivative of War of the Worlds it’s still an incredibly well-made action sequence. It also brings Michelle’s arc to a close, turning her from someone who runs from those in need to someone who is finally willing to selflessly help others. Still, there’s a far more interesting version of this movie where after Michelle emerges from the bunker she doesn’t look up to see space ships unleashing toxic gas and isn’t attacked by a CGI monster with a giant eye for a face. That’s infinitely less interesting to me than the human monster she faced in the bunker.
10 Cloverfield Lane would be a more effective movie if not for that ending, but it is still an expertly made movie nonetheless. It announces Tractenberg as a director to watch and will certainly take prime position on John Goodman’s career highlight reel.
What did you think of 10 Cloverfield Lane and its ending?