The Breivikian Subtext Of 10 Cloverfield Lane
For the most part 10 Cloverfield Lane is a loathsome, somewhat Faulkneresque, piece of trash. Conceived in the modern Pavlovian manner, its elements are there more to make you drool than think. That puts it firmly in the realm of anti-sf, not science fiction at all. Still, the fact that its creators saw fit it to have it masquerade as science fiction merits comment.
The story line is simple: our heroine Michelle, a buxom maid with a T-shirt maximally designed to forefront her boobs, elects to dump her boyfriend after an argument and drive off to pastures new. Bad hair day: she is hit by a car as she absconds,and wakes up chained and helpless in a cellar room. Are we salivating yet, audience?
This porn flick scenario is strengthened by the appearance of Howard, the lurker at the threshold. Played by the talented and normally engaging John Goodman, here he is dour, bearded, curt, and curmudgeonly. Our feisty heroine, mind and nipples straining, tries various ways to free herself and brain the repressed but clearly simmering Howard, but fails.
Sighing, Howard darkly enlightens her. Kidnap her for purposes of mere hanky-panky? Hardly. He has saved her sorry and ungrateful ass because massive and abysmal alien apocalypse has trashed the outside world, and they may be all that’s left. The air is contaminated. Nukes, Martians, something, God knows what, has blown all the radio and TV and satellite transmissions off the air. It’s the End Times! Thankfully survivalist Howard is ever ready, his well-stocked basement at 10 Cloverfield stuffed with all the bourgeois conveniences from canned goods and IVs to books, stereo and R-rated VHS.
Though gruff, grizzly, older and overweight, Howard has fed her, sheltered her, given her a place to stay, shared his limited resources, saved her life. But, alas: he is not buff. So expectations that this will become a tale of Adam and Eve repopulating the blasted Earth are in vain. Indeed, the more he tries to establish some sort of personal connection, the more the lady draws back, sensing that the silly old man wishes she would repay his kindness with an occasional dash of poontang. No chance, Fatso.
Howard has been dumb enough to also rescue and shelter Emmett, another End Times survivor. Emmett is the sort of clod found sucking back brewskis on the bar stools of every Country saloon in the land. But he’s younger and less pudgy than Howard, so naturally Emmett and Michelle soon pair off. Emmett, looking both ways, murmurs that Howard had another girl in his basement earlier, but — ahem — she ain’t there now, honey (if you catch my drift). Sinister chords warble as Michelle takes the hint. Howard may be canning more than preserves in his dank cellar.
But if so, why does Howard expend his limited resources to give shelter to Emmett at all? For that matter, doesn’t keeping two outsiders inside leave him potentially outnumbered and in danger? Ah, but you’re thinking logically, Reader. The goal is not to make sense, but to stoke rape scenarios in the moviegoers’ salivating libidos.
Thus, as suspicions grow that Howard may be an armed murderer and rapist with a growing crush on Michelle, the scriptwriters ramp up the growing Michelle and Emmet solidaridad to the point where they flirt right in front of the armed and lovelorn sap. Stupid, eh? Somehow Howard appears to manage. But when they actively plot together to get Howard’s gun so as to equalize their position as houseguests, the situation goes from emotional cruelty to a potential direct threat to Howard’s survival. Enough. Howard loses it, and kills Emmett.
Sensing that the situation has changed — they are no longer chaperoned, and (gulp) Howard has shaved — Michelle realizes in true Victorian fashion that Howard may soon subject her to A Fate Worse Than Death. None of that for this plucky lass. She splashes Howard with acid and sets the shelter burning, killing Howard in the subsequent explosion and escaping outside, preferring fatal irradiation to life under Howard’s patriarchal thumb.
This story has been told before. It’s the YA classic Z For Zachariah, in which boy meets girl in post-apocalyptic landscape. There as here the boy is rough and rude and clearly appears more and more ready to use force to bend the lady to his romantic will. Naturally the weaker sex gets the upper hand and walks out on the loser. As they’re the last of the species, this also means the end of the human race. But better that the human race end than a modern woman consent to have sex with a boor.
Cloverfield‘s screenwriters could simply have updated this for “adults,” if one can apply that word to modern American movie-goers. Even better: they could have arranged it so that Howard’s tale of apocalypse turned out to be a ruse, with the departing heroine going out not into the alien corn but into the plot-twist shock of everyday normality. A foreign director might have explored the starved and lonely isolation of Howard, or done a few Freudian arabesques on the incest theme, or even played with the possibility of the heart of Beauty being touched by The Old Beast.
But this is stock stereotype Hollywood, where Old White Men are always the villain and the young superwoman always breaks triumphantly free.
So she does. Out she goes, as Howard goes up in flames. Surprise! Birds are flying. The air is clear. The contamination has wafted away! Unfortunately there’s another surprise: an alien spacecraft slithers over like a manta ray to see what those rising flames are all about.
Loathsome tentacled thingies, creatures half out of Alien, half out of the Tom Cruise War Of The Worlds, descend, chase our heroine cat-and-mouse through the house topside, then snap up into the air the car into which she finally leaps for shelter.
But as slimy alien loathsomeness slithers nearer for a peek if not a tickle — how like Howard, eh? — our newly free Ms. Marvel shoves a handy Molotov cocktail up its… er… orifice. Up goes the thingie. And by golly, so does the entire galaxy-spanning alien spacecraft! They just don’t build them the way they used to.
The car drops to earth; and, despite a recent road crash, apocalyptic radiation fallout, weeks of just sitting there idle, and now an aerial drop from crushing alien pincers, it starts right up soon as it hits land. How about that quality Ford engineering, eh? Our heroine is back on the road.
And as she drives, the radio comes on. Hurrah, Americans are kicking alien butt and taking back the land! And they need all the help they can get. Join up today! Our heroine swerves onto the empty Interstate to help mankind finish the job.
That’s the story. Such as it is. But what is this film actually about? Psychologically it seems more a standard piece of feminismo than anything else — a flight-from-sex tale embodied in a narrative string of fatuous and failed relationships with men; feminist paranoia, really. Our heroine starts by walking out on her Significant Other, fails to collaborate well enough with doofus Emmett to keep him from getting killed, slaughters Howard outright, and wipes out the alien probe down to the last probing, slithering feeler. Dude, can’t we all just get along? Apparently not.
Art can be built on the theme of refusal, of course. Not for nothing is Antigone classic.
But why drag sci-fi into it?
As readers know, I regard most sf as an expression in metaphor of quietly pressing but subterranean issues. This is no new insight. We’ve long heard that in, say, The Time Machine, Morlock and Eloi are anticipations of the ultimate fates of underclass debasement and aristocratic decadence; that in The War Of The Worlds, the invading Martians are an analogue for the coming Germans. The metaphors have continuing resonance and relevance because they are loose enough to fit later concerns. (The German Martians of Wells become the Communist Martians of yesterday become the Islamic immigrant Martians of today, and so on.)
There are, of course, alternative, stronger and better methodologies of science fiction — the Soviet way of rational utilitarian futurology, in which the writer projects a likely and desirable future and portrays active and admirable protagonists constructing it. Star Trek is a prime example.
Unfortunately that is also one of the toughest ways of approaching artistic creation. Conscious and deliberate art is like conscious and deliberate spontaneity: one can foster the conditions which give rise to the spontaneous, but one can’t produce it on demand. Far easier to simply copy what seems to sell, like Steven Spielberg’s stream of Indiana Jones or Holocaust or feelgood family film rehashes, or to spin out one’s narrative improv and follow it wheresoever it will, as with David Lynch’s numerous self-indulgences.
But this is what makes the conclusion of 10 Cloverfield Lane a puzzle. None of this explains the need to tack on a science-fiction element to an essentially non-sci-fi tale. Why do it? Just because SF sells?
Maybe. But I think that something more is going on. My suspicion? Alien invasion is sprinkled on at the end not to express what is pre-consciously intuited, but so as to avoid expressing it. It’s a new trend: a move from science fiction as social metaphor to science fiction as social mask.
Consider. What large-scale social phenomena are currently everywhere in the press, and socially evident as well? Immigration, migration, racial and ethnic rioting and looting — multicultural friction, in short. Would one not therefore expect a crop of science fiction films featuring swarming aliens and cities in flame? Such exaggerated expressions of social immigrant “invasion” would seem the inevitable result of a society riven by the subject.
But no film can examine feelings of discomfort or concern over immigration directly or sympathetically — that would be racist, a label that is for the moment a social and professional kiss of death. So one sees no full-blown struggle-against-occupation War Of The Worlds plot lines. That cuts too close.
Thus, while alien invasion is the motor driving the entire situation of 10 Cloverfield Lane, the actual threat, the alien threat, is pushed to the side throughout, and not faced till the very end of the picture. The immediate threat throughout the whole of the film is Howard.
And that is why I think 10 Cloverfield Lane is not so much a feminist film as a Breivikian one — indeed, something of a fascist classic.
In many ways 10 Cloverfield Lane is Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone writ cinematic. Putnam is the academic who famously studied diversity so as to celebrate all its wondrous benefits, only to find that the results were wholly negative, and principally marked by a decay of social trust and what he called “tunneling” — the tendency of those in diversifying environments to withdraw into their houses and into isolation.
This is of course the perfect image of Howard the survivalist, who deals with invasion not by facing it but by hiding from it. Who kills not the Enemy but a fellow human being so as to secure his hiding place and get the girl. He thins out his own people — the human population, not the competing alien one.
Apparently the Alpha male, he is in reality Beta: all he wants to do is survive. And of course you can’t survive the Enemy: you have to confront, defeat, and expel him. This is not something the film wants to say out loud, just as it does not want to say that the first step in dealing with the Enemy is dealing with the cowards and enablers that put off that direct confrontation.
This is the Anders Breivik approach: when struggling against Islamic foreigners, kill local liberals first. And this is the true if implied subtext of 10 Cloverfield Lane.
Why is this fascist reading arguably the truer one? Because the feminist reading requires no alien invasion. Howard could have been simply a nut capturing a girl and faking some paranoid story to convince her to stay willingly. And she could have seen through it and dispatched him, to politically correct applause.
But the fact that there are aliens, and humanity is pitted against them, puts the entire situation in a new perspective. Howard’s killing of Emmett detracts from that struggle; Michelle’s killing of Howard frees her to advance it. From the point of group survival, the survivalist is not a warrior but a traitor; though it puts her at personal risk, Michelle is correct to reject him. For the threat transcends the personal.
But this is not something that can be framed in contemporary terms. The swarm cannot be Muslim or Somali. Hence the science fiction. Grotesquely alien life forms are distant enough for us to have our paranoia and get a feminist thumbs-up review from The New York Times too.
The interesting question is: is this concealment deliberate? Are science fiction tropes now being used to hide social material, as opposed to their traditional function of consciously or unwittingly expressing it? if so, it’s a significant and possibly ominous displacement.
And not the only displacement. The ostensible feminism is only ostensible: there is a subtle redirection at work in this film, one in which Michelle’s struggle against Howard’s cubbyhole authoritarianism eventually issues in her final decision to join with the far more generally authoritarian military state for combat yet to come.
While structured for commercial reasons as soft porn, in the end this is a war film. And a pro-war film at that. But one that it is taking conventional feminist fears and hatreds and redeploying it to combative tribal ends — a nearly imperceptible conversion from left to Alt Right.
An intentional passage? Probably not. But social trends don’t have to be intentional to flourish, or to flourish with ultimately devastating impact. And there is quite a difference between an intuitive emerging awareness breaking through in artistic forms, and works of art striving to repress that emergence — between an art expressing things we are only just beginning to suspect, and an art that obscures these new transitions under old tropes.
And what that leaves us with is… very little indeed: a science fiction that is no longer about the future and not even about the present.