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SYFY WIRE coronavirus

10 Cloverfield Lane turns 5 on the same day the pandemic turns 1. How fitting.

By James Grebey

While different people in different parts of the world might have their own COVID-19 milestones, March 11 seems like the closest thing there is to a consensus "anniversary." It was on this date last year that the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and in the United States, it was the day that the NBA suspended its season just as Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson revealed they both had the virus. March 11 was the day when it became hard to ignore how serious this was. It was one of the last days before people started to hunker down, self-isolating and quarantining for what we initially thought might be a couple of weeks, but now know was a full year — and counting.

In addition to being the pandemic’s anniversary, though, March 11 is also the five-year anniversary of 10 Cloverfield Lane, a movie that spends most of its runtime with its characters trapped inside a small space because there’s something deadly outside. 

A spiritual (if essentially unconnected) sequel to 2008’s found-footage giant monster movie, Cloverfield, 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Michelle, a young woman who wakes up inside an underground bunker after a car accident. Her rescuer — or kidnapper, she doesn’t know for certain — is a strange man named Howard, played by John Goodman. Howard explains that something terrible has happened up above.

The air outside is poisoned, perhaps due to the Russians or because of an alien invasion. In either case, they’ll need to stay inside for up to two years before it’s safe to venture to the surface again. Michelle, along with the bunker’s other resident, a local handyman of sorts named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), attempt to live peacefully, for a time, with Howard. Before too long, though, they grow increasingly suspicious of their quarantine roommate. He might just be more dangerous than whatever deadly thing is lurking outside the door of the bunker — if there’s anything dangerous outside at all. 

Compared to Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a much smaller affair. It’s not employing gimmicky camera techniques and following a group of people through Manhattan as a monster kills hundreds of people. With the exception of a brief appearance by a woman on the other side of the door (and a vocal cameo from Bradley Cooper, of all people, as Michelle’s ex), 10 Cloverfield Lane is just three characters, trapped in one location. Even before we all became so acquainted with similar circumstances, the claustrophobic smallness of the film was effective. As Howard, Goodman conveys an incredible blend of unsteady hospitality and cold menace. Before Michelle discovers that Howard really is a threat, 10 Cloverfield Lane tricks viewers into thinking that, wary as they might be of Howard, perhaps it’s better to be inside with him than outside with who knows what.

It’s one of the reasons why (spoiler alert for a five-year-old movie) the ending is controversial, and to many viewers, a letdown. When Michelle does escape the bunker after dousing Howard with acid (gross!), she discovers that aliens have indeed invaded Earth. She escapes an admittedly cool-looking alien dog and blows up a ship by throwing a Molotov cocktail into its “mouth.” She becomes a Ripley-esque action star, which is neat in theory but in practice feels totally at odds with the scope and tone of the rest of the movie. 

Far more effective is the middle section, especially a montage (set to Tommy James and the Shondells’ 1967 song “I Think We’re Alone Now”) that shows the trio living almost happily inside of the bunker. Michelle’s concerns about Howard have been put to rest, for now, and she believes she’s safer inside the bunker than outside. (If 10 Cloverfield Lane has aged poorly in any way, it’s ironically. Howard, a doomsday prepper and conspiracy theorist, seems more likely to be an anti-masker who thinks COVID is a hoax than somebody who would bunker down out of fear of it.) As the song plays, we see Michelle, Howard, and Emmett watch movies, do jigsaw puzzles, cook, and do chores — just keeping the routine going and trying to keep themselves entertained as they gear down to stay indoors for an unknown amount of time. 

10 Cloverfield Lane

The movie doesn’t make it explicit exactly how long Michelle’s in the bunker prior to her escape, but it certainly seems like she wasn’t down there for as long as many of us in the real world have been self-isolating due to COVID. Granted, the circumstances aren’t the same — we can go outside with relative safety if we wear masks and take precautions, we know that society is still functioning (more or less) outside the doors of our homes, and we aren’t isolating because we were kidnapped by a possible murderer (one would hope). 

And yet, though the circumstances are different, 10 Cloverfield Lane hits a lot harder rewatching it on the movie’s fifth birthday than it would have on its fourth. (Probably doesn’t help that the first time I watched the movie, I saw it in a movie theater. The second time I watched it at home, the same way I’ve watched every movie for a year.) We now have first-hand experience with 10 Cloverfield Lane’s central premise, and though the stakes aren’t the same, the monotony and uncertainty about when this will all end — and what life’s going to be like when and if that happens — are that much more relatable. In that light, the ending is even more of a misstep because we know we’re not going to have to face off with an alien monster when we leave quarantine. (Again, one would hope.) 

Instead, it will be a tentative, unsure return to some new level of normalcy. That lingering mystery that makes the bulk of the movie so effective will remain in our post-vaccine reality. We won’t kill a monster or get a firm answer about the state of the world. We’ll just try to go about our lives, hoping that things will be normal by the movie’s sixth anniversary but with just enough lingering doubt. Maybe it’s safer to be inside, all things considered, after all.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.