The girl is trapped in a basement and has no way of escape. Her captor is big and menacing, but brings her food and says he wants to keep her alive. He even offers her crutches for her fractured knee. There is another person trapped with the captor: a young man with a broken arm. These three people have come together through chance and circumstance to live out what we’re told is the worst nuclear war of all time.
The common area upstairs inhabits the empty shell of an underground bunker. It’s nicely decorated, made to look like a cheap solution for anyone who loves living in bunkers. There’s room for a kitchen, an ice-cream box, a dining table, a jukebox and TV (in case the bunker walls become too monotonous), and there are board games and jigsaw puzzles. The one down side is that the toilet is protected only by a shower curtain, and it’s in the captor’s bedroom. At least there’s an image of a rubber duck on it.
The girl is Michelle, played aggressively by Mary Elizabeth Winstead in a role that requires all the heavy lifting. She begins the movie in a kind of virtuoso opening montage that runs beneath an ominous score and nothing else. We are shown her interest in fashion, that she’s engaged, that she’s leaving her home (and engagement ring) for pastures greener.
Driving through the country that night, she is pestered by incessant phone calls from her boyfriend, an annoyance that, in Hollywood land, is a surefire way to get yourself into a major car accident.
And so it is.
Michelle is bounced rudely off the road and down a hill and wakes up in the basement that is below the bunker that’s below the surface of the Earth. She is told by Howard the captor (John Goodman) that everyone she knows and love is dead – killed, presumably, by the Russians or the Chinese, or by nuclear weapons or aliens. Howard doesn’t seem to know which, but is convinced there’s a war going on up there regardless.
What proceeds, then, is a little mystery game involving Howard, his assertions, his rules of the bunker, and an enigmatic fascination with a girl named Megan. Michelle and the broken-armed man, Emmet (John Gallagher, Jr.), are corralled into a corner of darkness and questions. And what’s worse, Howard has a gun.
For the most part, 10 Cloverfield Lane unfolds with layers of dread. Can Michelle trust Howard? Can she trust Emmet? Does she have a choice? Is there really a nuclear/Russian/extra-terrestrial war going on? Winstead is thoroughly affecting in the role, but the film stumbles over familiar ground. It doesn’t push as far as it could have with its situation and characters into a realm that would have truly been disturbing and unpredictable.
And then there’s the matter of the denouement, which is clearly shoehorned in so that the movie can call itself a spiritual relation to the first Cloverfield movie, where aliens invaded Earth and decapitated poor old Lady Liberty.
I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to tell you Michelle escapes the bunker (it would’ve been a spoiler had “Cloverfield” not been in the title), but I will not tell you what she discovers next. Her discovery cheapens the movie, because it negates the Goodman storyline and subjugates his character. It also, incidentally, makes him a kind of psychic. I know this is a Cloverfield movie, so there must be Cloverfield elements, but I would’ve much preferred it if Michelle had stayed in that bunker of horrors till the end, trapped by her own fears.