10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Many movie lovers will leave this film with a dilemma swirling in their mind: can a poorly conceived and poorly directed ending be ignored while you hang on to the memory of the brilliant film that almost was? In cinema, the answer is usually no because we remember a film backwards via the way the story ended. The ending is also the key to how we read a film and how we apply genre codes to make sense of cinematic storytelling. This film traverses three totally different but often compatible genres: the psychological thriller, the horror/gore, and the science fantasy, in that order. Note that the last one is not the same as science fiction, a respectable genre that creatively draws on the logic of science. The film 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) starts brilliantly as a thriller, drops a gear or two as horror, and then has an inexcusable brain-snap as mediocre science fantasy.
The linear plotline opens with soon-to-be-married Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) walking out on her fiancé only to drive straight into a horrific car crash. She wakes up chained inside a bunker and is held captive by Howard (John Goodman), a doomsday prophet who built the sealed underground structure in anticipation of a major global event. He eventually convinces her that the outside world is now a post-apocalyptic and uninhabitable mess. His neighbour Emmett (John Gallagher) is the only other actor and becomes a confidante for Michelle, but not for long. For the first three-quarters of the film, tension builds then slowly flattens while Michelle becomes accepting of her plight in a claustrophobic space with all the comforts of home. When Howard’s temper shifts into horror and gore mode, Michelle takes flight only to stumble into a B-grade science fantasy set created with last century computer graphics. Everything this film achieves in terms of emotional tension, doubt, confusion, and of course, unbridled fear…then goes up in a puff a smoke.
John Goodman’s imposing girth, menacing bluster and steely gaze entertainingly convey total terror with enough glimpses of ‘Mr nice-guy’ to create confusion. For the most part Mary Elizabeth Winstead ably reflects vulnerability, disbelief and fear, although she settles into domesticity rather too easily. The early unfolding story sustains a level of plausibility, even when Howard starts going weird. The real thrill in this film, however, is watching it crash and burn in the last twenty minutes as it runs out of ideas and takes a bad turn in the hope that the applause of science fantasy fans will drown out the boos of thriller fans. But neither group wins as the ending transforms this film into an incoherent and unforgivable mess.
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Stars: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher