When I watched 10 Cloverfield Lane a few dates ago with my husband, I was expecting a thriller with possibly some monster overtones– after all, J.J. Abrams, the powerhouse behind the 2013 cult monster hit Cloverfield, is one of the producers. What I wasn’t expecting was a tale of empowerment, and a subtle exploration of what it means to be saved.
The movie opens with Michelle (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) hastily packing belongings while intentionally leaving behind her engagement ring. She frantically drives along increasingly obscure roads, only to black out from an accident and wake up a prisoner, her injured leg chained to a stone wall in a bleak underground room. Michelle is soon introduced to the bunker’s owner, Howard (John Goodman), who informs her that there has been “an attack.” The world outside the bunker has been saturated with poison gas, but he has saved her life. There is no one coming to look for her.
The audience finds themselves identifying with Michelle as she seeks to distinguish real threats in the bunker from those imagined. The film’s sound design and score are written largely from her perspective and the camera follows her as she makes discoveries about her environment. We quickly discover that although Howard makes himself out to be the good guy, he is clearly one of the monsters of this film. Like many abusers, he casts himself as the heroic savior, even as he gaslights, manipulates, and tries to control everything from Michelle’s emotions to her very thoughts.
Michelle’s empowerment is a clear theme throughout this movie as she comes to grips with the reality of Howard’s predatory nature as well as her own innate ability to resist. This culminates at the end of the film where Michelle is once again in her car, but instead of running from danger, she deliberately turns into its path, willing and able to resist.
In the wake of Michelle’s empowerment and liberation from her predators, I found myself thinking about what it means to be “saved.” Howard tells Michelle that he is saving her. And for a short while, Michelle thinks that perhaps he is. But in the end, he is only another predator. Like Michelle, we may find ourselves under the control of something that purports to be “saving us” when it actually holds us hostage. This can be as insidious as a coping mechanism which turns into an addiction, or a fear-based dogma that imprisons even as it proffers fake feelings of safety. The good news is that we are not powerless against these perpetrators. Instead, somewhere inside us is the ability to conform to an alternative narrative, one that liberates and gives agency to those trapped in darkness.