For a long time artists have realised that claustrophobia is a powerful thing. If you can evoke the sense of being trapped in a confined space, you can put the audience in a state of tension, which you can then ratchet up and play with. It’s something used effectively in 10 Cloverfield Lane, which follows a woman, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who gets into a car accident after a fight with her boyfriend.
She wakes in a concrete bunker, chained to a wall, with no knowledge of how she got there or what’s going on. With most of the action confined to the small bunker, Michelle must figure out what is happening. Her ‘captor’, Howard (John Goodman), says some sort of attack has taken place, the air outside is now toxic, and that the safest place is down in his claustrophobic shelter. There’s also a ‘survivor’, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who says he saw the attack.
Should Michelle trust them? Are they both lying? Do either of them have other secrets? Or has some sort of major attack really taken place?
It’s not the first story that’s used a claustrophobic setting to add to the tension. Back in 1844 Edgar Allan Poe wrote The Premature Burial about a man obsessed with being buried alive (a theme explored more recently in the 2010 Ryan Reynolds movie Buried). Confined spaces have also been used effectively on quite a few occasions, from the elevator of Devil (2010) to the caves of The Descent (2005).
One of the most interesting aspects of using a claustrophobic setting is that on the surface it seems very anti-cinematic. Film is a medium that normally thrives on being able to use expansive locations. One of the first lessons you’ll learn in film school is that two people talking in a single location is normally dull. Have you ever wondered why so many films scenes take place over dinner, or when people are randomly walking around? It’s because film is a visual medium and so eating and walking are used as fake action, making it look like something visually interesting is happening when it’s not.
Confining things to a single, small location therefore adds a whole set of extra challenges for the filmmakers to help keep things tense and dynamic, purely because of the limitations it places on what can happen and how it can be shown. 90 minutes of people in a small space could easily be pretty dull, so the screenwriters and directors have to find innovative ways to ensure they don’t lose the audience’s interest. While a single, confined location can be of enormous help in creating tension, unless very carefully handled it can also make for a very boring movie.
The answer is to use a mixture of filmmaking and storytelling finesse. For example, in the Oscar-winning Gravity, Sandra Bullock spends a lot of time in tiny little space ships and stations where she can barely move. However, the movie gets round this with a fast moving plot and a filmmaking style that allows it to feel very dynamic, with hugely long shots and sets where the walls could be pulled away and replaced incredibly quickly to give the camera complete freedom of movement.
Other films, such as 1982’s masterful Das Boot, have used sound to help ensure the audience is kept on its toes. That film is almost entirely set on a small World War II German Submarine, with much of the tension coming from the creaking of the metal around them, constantly reminding you of the millions of tonnes of water pressing in on them from the outside and the possibility of death coming at any moment.
There have also been claustrophobic films which have deliberately played with the fact one location could very easily be cinematically boring. That’s true of Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, which sees James Franco as Aron Ralston, who finds himself trapped when his arm gets caught by a boulder in a narrow desert canyon ravine, with the vast majority of the movie taking place in that small location. While much of the time the movie tries to keep things dynamic to ensure the audience doesn’t fall asleep, it also needs the viewer to empathise with quite how long Aron has been trapped there. To do so it mixes an interesting use of camera angles and drama with periods where it deliberately plays on the fact 127 Hours is a long time, and there’s little for Aron to do except possibly wait to die. It deliberately plays on how dull its claustrophobic conceit could be to make the audience feel even more for Aron, while ensuring it doesn’t actually get boring.
10 Cloverfield Lane uses many of these techniques, particularly a great way of making the location seem small and quite large simultaneously, using the framing of the shots to alternately make the walls seem like they’re pressing in on the characters, and putting space between them. It smartly adds in a lot of mystery, so you don’t really know what’s going on and have to constantly keep guessing (it’s certainly a film where it’s best to avoid too many spoilers before you watch it). Perhaps most interesting is the way it plays with whether being trapped inside a claustrophobic chamber with a possible madman is preferable to being outside where the earth may be under attack and the air itself deadly. Until it begins to reveal itself, you don’t know whether it’s a place of extreme danger or a comparatively safe womb.
It’s certainly worked, with 10 Cloverfield Lane getting some very good reviews and an impressive 90% Fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com.