The Political Message(s) of 10 Cloverfield Lane

By  · Published on March 15th, 2016

John Goodman as Howard; Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Michelle in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE; by Paramount Pictures

Spoiler Warning: The following article addresses the ending of 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Today is a day to think politically. It’s the Ides of March. It’s Mega Tuesday. Or Super Tuesday 3. Whatever your preferred media outlet is calling it. This is the day when the American presidency could be secured for a certain candidate. Or maybe it’s just another notch in the timeline of what will go down in history as one of the craziest if not also scariest election years in a long time.

Regardless of how things turn out this November, film scholars will surely wind up looking back on this year’s political climate when analyzing 10 Cloverfield Lane. If you think this movie won’t be fodder for papers on both the student and peer-reviewed academic level, you don’t know the world of cinema studies. What’s surprising is that it’s not already being overanalyzed all over the Internet.

Maybe it’s too early? Maybe I’m just quick to overthink things? I know it’s just a coincidence, but I couldn’t help notice right away that the first Cloverfield came out in 2008, at the start of the last election year when Americans would choose a definite new commander-in-chief, and now here’s the non-sequel blood relative thing as we’re about to choose another.

With Cloverfield, it was hard to ignore immediate signs of subtext in the 9/11 imagery of a mostly unseen monster destroying New York City. But many critics at the time dismissed the idea that it was a politically charged movie. And in an interview with Time, producer J.J. Abrams made it clear the intention was primarily for a thrilling fantasy.

“With Cloverfield we were trying to create a film that would be entertaining and, as a by-product of the subject matter, perhaps be a catharsis,” he’s quoted as saying from the set of Star Trek. “We wanted to let people live through their wildest fears but be in a safe place where the enemy is the size of a skyscraper instead of some stateless, unseen cowardly terrorist.”

If anything there was jokey tweeting ahead of the movie’s release, such as this one:

For 10 Cloverfield Lane, I have found two reviews making hint of some political reading. In his take for The Film Stage, Dan Schindel calls John Goodman’s survivalist bunker builder “the physical embodiment of modern conservative paranoia,” while David Edelstein closes out his review for New York magazine with, asking of the same character, “Could he be a liberal’s nightmare ‐ a guy who thinks Trump tells it like it is ‐ and right?”

There’s also plenty of jokey tweeting this time around:

In those two tweets, and many like them, Goodman’s character is either likened to Donald Trump or the anti-Trump. There’s a big difference between the two, of course, but it’s not that weird to see both sides of the political spectrum in 10 Cloverfield Lane. The same way conservatives might see a monster in Barack Obama. Or liberals might in George W. Bush. It’s all in the perspective.

On the one hand, 10 Cloverfield Lane definitely aligns with some past readings of similar stories taken as criticisms of conservative policy or agendas. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, also released in a presidential election year, wasn’t intended to be but was analyzed by many as an allegory of post-9/11 fear and the Patriot Act because it’s about a community with limitations on their civil liberties, for their protection against “monsters” outside their borders.

Here, Goodman’s character has a doomsday bunker for the purpose of protecting himself and others against a threat beyond its walls, and it’s either also “monsters” or extraterrestrials or a more realistic international enemy. Unlike The Village, in 10 Cloverfield Lane the threat turns out to be real (an alien invasion). That would make it potentially not a critique against conservative protection.

Right-wing perspective could see Goodman’s character as not being the worst evil of the movie. He could be seen as having been correct and therefore even if an imperfect man still a kind of hero. It’s like defending someone like Bush or Trump as being bad leaders but still better than the alternative, which would be terrorist attacks or illegal immigrants or whatever.

On the other hand, maybe Goodman represents Big Government. He’s forced people into his communal space where he’s like a big ol’ nanny and they’re all made to do their part to keep things going smoothly, but Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character is a libertarian set on being responsible for her own welfare, no matter what the dangers be.

She doesn’t want to be a neutral party in hiding either. Her decision to go outside, to see what is the actual threat, and ultimately choose to fight over flight is psychologically a very conservative disposition. Maybe 10 Cloverfield Lane is about how we need to run from Washington and its overbearing politicians thinking they know what’s best for us and instead be pro-Trump.

Even with the alternating views of Goodman = Trump or the aliens = Trump, varied perspectives can see the main point that we should fight trump and get out or get out and fight Trump. Or fight politicians like Hillary Clinton and get out or get out and fight Clinton. I guess in the readings where we have to get out to fight the real enemy that Goodman’s character is ourselves?

Of course, none of these is right, even if some might seem to make more sense than others. Abrams is a known liberal, but I’m not sure about the movie’s screenwriters nor of director Dan Trachtenberg. And anyway Abrams’s comment on the lack of political meaning in the first Cloverfield should probably carry over to the new movie. Again, it’s just thrilling fantasy.

NEXT: Iron Man 3 is the Most Political Superhero Movie Ever Made

However, in that old Time interview, Abrams also brings up The Twilight Zone in response to questions of the political themes of the 2008 movie, and that’s a show many have used as comparison for 10 Cloverfield Lane, as well. He implies here that Cloverfield is doing something similar to what Serling did:

My favorite series was the Twilight Zone. Before that, Rod Serling was dealing with issues of politics and race and getting into a great deal of trouble with the censors and the advertisers. The feeling was that people watch TV to forget those things. When he did the Twilight Zone he made a conscious effort to do a show that could deal with those things and not get him into trouble. He was a brilliant social commentator. Everything you were looking at was incredibly resonant, even though you were talking about a guy with three eyes or a woman who was 90 feet tall.

Maybe Abrams or the rest of the makers of 10 Cloverfield Lane won’t chime in with a definite meaning intended for the movie. That’s always for the best, because it allows viewers their own interpretations. And we can be sure that unless the movie is quickly forgotten for some reason (given its acclaim and relative success so far, that’s unlikely), we’ll be seeing more takes on its political relevance if not clear objectives in years to come.

Related Topics:

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.