With 10 Cloverfield Lane, J.J. Abrams seems to be jockeying for a series about monster flicks as Campbellian forge. Its predecessor, simply Cloverfield, tracked a feckless yuppie through Beast From 20,000 Fathoms-style carnage to rescue a woman he was prepared to move half a world away from rather than admit feelings for. Lane is both more and less explicitly introspective, being a claustrophobic thriller for most its runtime, before veering into George Pal territory. Aspiring fashion designer Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) leaves behind a fiance after some unseen altercation, only to crash her car on a country highway. Awakening in a bunker with two men–deranged survivalist Howard (John Goodman) and self-made burnout Emmet (John Gallagher, Jr.)–she is told the outside world is uninhabitable and to not leave, even as it’s clear her host keeps a few secrets about the nature of their shelter.
Michelle engages her roommates cautiously, mindful of her disastrous relationships with men. In confidence, she relates to Emmet how an abusive father conditioned her to run from danger (a context which suggests her largely-unmentioned boyfriend may have struck her, prompting that flight response?). Howard, then, is an embodiment of those fears: anti-social, paternalist, and violent in his mood swings, Goodman portrays him as a frightening mass of contradictory impulses towards Michelle (even his physical presence becomes swollen as events progress). Deluded, he regards her as a surrogate for an estranged daughter (in one amusing/creepy sequence, he fails a guessing game by calling Michelle “child” and “princess,” when the answer is “Little Woman”). Because she’s trapped with him, and Emmet being an uncertain ally, Michelle can’t run from danger, so she copes, then prepares to face it.
It would be tempting to say Lane is the inverse of Cloverfield. That earlier movie is constructed as a series of theme park sequences with a somewhat elaborate backstory. Interpersonal relationships are vapid, hashed out before the half-hour mark–it all becomes a matter of the leading man reaching his damsel. With, essentially, one location, there isn’t a similar momentum to Lane, so screenwriters Josh Campbell, Matt Steucken, and Damien Chazelle favor character development, while spectacle is offloaded in an extended third act, where Michelle’s honed skills are shown off.
But, Lane is not so different from Cloverfield. Both make inter- and intrapersonal conflicts stated and apparent, with only the barest of room for subtext. Largely driven by writer’s room dynamics (Dan Trachtenberg, like Matt Reeves before him, is nothing more than a journeyman, competent but uninspiring), both are also products of the whims of executive producer J.J. Abrams, who absorbed Campbell and Steucken’s spec script The Cellar into his brand of vaguely alluded conspiracies, discussions of fate, and monsters lurking on the edge of personal drama (his ode to Spielberg, Super 8, may as well have been a bridge between the two films). Neither obsesses much over any sort of political or social metaphor which could be read into them (9/11, terrorism, post-Cold War politics, etc.), only with individual navel-gazing. Lane is simply, then, the more focused of these monomyth monsters.