WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW!
10 Cloverfield Lane was supposed to be the “blood relative” of 2008’s Cloverfield, but it’s completely unconnected to the original film save a few easter eggs. The film did, however, utilize an immersive internet marketing scheme much like the first game. The content from this game, known as an ARG (alternate reality game) drummed up interest in the film with a series of clues and character information. Unfortunately, the ARG offers little more besides excitement, further direct ties to the Tagruato company of the first film, and confirmation that Howard probably has a daughter named Megan. John Goodman’s Howard Stambler worked as a telemetry analyst for Tagruato subsidiary Bold Futura, which specializes in contracts with military, arms manufacturers and space exploration organizations.
One particularly delightful element of this game is that one of the trailers for the film included hidden coordinates. Reddit user MugensKeeper from the lively r/10CloverfieldLane community went to those coordinates and found a box full of stuff! The contents included prepper gear like a survival guide, a poncho, duck tape, and a flashlight, but my favorite item was one of the missing puzzle pieces from that Catfish jigsaw puzzle in the film.
The box also included some USB drives that contained an audio file of a report from a spy satellite about a magnetic field. There’s also a reference to the red light in the film: “There was a, uh, flash of red light that seemed to come from… uh, everywhere… and then it was gone.”
10 Cloverfield Lane comes with baggage, even more so if you followed the ARG, but the movie’s suspense and tension is so engrossing that at times it can successfully erase these powerful expectations and preconceived notions. While the ending is still a controversial subject, the main intrigue of the film is not knowing who or what to trust, and constantly having your worldview upended at every turn. In that way, entering the film with Cloverfield expectations is almost like being in the bunker.
You think you know what’s going on, but then something happens that shakes up your perception. As Michelle, Mary Elizabeth Winstead captures the audience and takes us into this confusing world from her point of view. Even if we never truly get a picture of her internal world or her past, we still live with her in each terrifying present moment. She lives the entire story in a fight-and-flight mode; before she’s captured she’s running away from a relationship, and from the moment she regains consciousness in a strange place, she’s thinking of a way out. Everything is a puzzle to be solved for her and her will to survive a churning motivating force. When she sees an opportunity to take Howard’s keys, she acts on it right away instead of waiting for a later night. The moment is always now! for Michelle, and she never wastes a breath jumping into it.
10 Cloverfield Lane got its bones from a spec script called The Cellar that had a much more meek and less clever Michelle and a more conniving Emmet character named Nate. That movie ended with Michelle escaping leaving Howard only mildly injured and driving into to town where she can see a decimated Chicago skyline. In this version, something has happened, but it isn’t explicitly addressed.
The new version was reworked by Whiplash‘s Damien Chazelle, who is not only a master of jarring suspense, but knows how to write about the terrifying intricacies of abuse. The seen monsters at the end can seem interjected after such an engrossingly myopic chamber piece. Michelle exhibited superhero-like savvy and physical feats in her escape from Howard, but to see her immediately reckon with mammoth extraterrestrial killing machines immediately afterwards took many in the audience (including myself) out of an enmeshment with her character.
John Goodman’s Howard, with all his layers of secrets, desires, and unpredictable behaviors, is a much more compelling monster for me. The aliens resolve an important mystery of the film: they vindicate Goodman’s dark paranoid obsessions, but the true problem with Howard was something else.
The aliens seem evil because they’re attacking us, but Howard’s evil is a familiar prick of a human danger. Like many abusers, he cloaks his objectifying hungers with a mask of concern and protection. By the end it becomes clear that he’s obsessed with more than surviving the end of the world; he’s trying to replace his lost daughter by any means necessary. The usual narrative of this type predator usually involves a sexual aspect, but it’s still unclear if Howard was veering that way. His infantilization of Michelle was so extreme that he couldn’t think of her as anything but a “girl,” or a “little princess” during a charades-like game where Emmett was trying to get him to guess the word “woman.”
He dresses her up in his daughter Megan’s clothes, tells her that Megan was an excellent cook, and she will learn to be one someday. The creepiest aspect of Howard’s obsession with Megan, however, isn’t any of that. It’s not even when Emmett tells Michelle the photo Howard says is of Megan is actually a girl named Brittany who disappeared. It’s when Howard shaves, spiffies himself up and cheerfully serves Michelle ice cream in a bowl because that’s the way Megan liked it — right after he shot Emmett in cold blood and dissolved his body in an acid bath.
Up until that point, his shapeshifting personas were untrustworthy and unsettling, but he was just a strange charmer. At times, like most abusers, you almost want to believe him, and to believe in him. He was broken, broken-hearted, obsessed, sure. But he was all Michelle had, and maybe the world outside was so bad, this was the best possible situation to be in, even if he was a little crazy. This unique situation is a microcosm a lot of people find themselves in, whether it’s with family or a romantic partner. The domestic situation may be a horror show, but the abuser wants the victim to feel like the outside world is worse: completely unlivable, even. The abuser cherry picks the bad examples as proof to keep another person confined to their world, but, as in the movie, often the crude dangers of the outside world are a better alternative to the nightmare poison air of abusive relationships.
In the end, the nature of the monsters, the aliens destroying the world outside the cellar door, becomes a “known” thing. The unknowns of this movie are still lurking in the shadows. The monster of this story is human, as our monsters always are. We always want to know whys: what made Howard tick, why Michelle ran away from her fiance, what really happened to Megan and Brittany, and what Emmet’s story really was. But these details, these hanging threads of curiosity are kind of like the needling, unsatisfied questions of real life. We can go over a story again, and again, prod and pick and ask, but there’s always a maddening mystery to the human heart.
— FrancescoFrancavilla (@f_francavilla) March 14, 2016
Why use “Cloverfield” for this movie?
J. J. Abrams, who produced both films, seems to be setting the stage for a Twilight Zone type anthology series where weird tales can co-exist in the same universe (called by fans the Cloververse) but aren’t necessarily logically or chronologically connected to each other. The threads that holds them together are the name, of course, the fictional company Targuato, and the “monster” theme explored through more human lenses than some previous popular monster movies.
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