This post contains only minor spoilers for 10 Cloverfield Lane, but still—read at your own risk.
In 10 Cloverfield Lane, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is the final girl, in more ways than one: She may very well be the last woman on earth. Or so she's been led to believe.
After losing consciousness in a car accident, Michelle awakens with a broken leg, chained to a wall in a spare, windowless concrete room. Howard (an unbelievably creepy John Goodman) tells Michelle that he rescued her from the wreckage. He brought her here, to his underground doomsday bunker, in order to protect her from a devastating chemical attack that has killed countless people and rendered the air unbreathable for those lucky enough to have survived. They won't be able to revisit the surface for at least a year, he says.
Is he lying? Is he dangerous? Has he lost his mind? Along with the bunker's third occupant, Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), Michelle struggles to determine whether Howard is her captor or her savior in the second installment of the Cloverfield film franchise.
10 Cloverfield Lane is at least three kinds of scary movies in one, and to reveal them all here would be tantamount to spoiling it. I will say this: Michelle is no damsel in distress. While the story of a woman trapped in a claustrophobic space by a frightening man should theoretically have more in common with Room, the 2015 movie that 10 Cloverfield Lane reminded me most of was The Martian. It's a kind of competence porn: Michelle finds herself in unfamiliar territory, with her only path to survival through tireless resourcefulness and sheer force of will.
In that sense, 10 Cloverfield Lane—director Dan Trachtenberg's first feature—strikes me as a cousin to the 2011 home invasion thriller You're Next. When brutal masked assassins beset her boyfriend's family reunion, Erin (Sharni Vinson) proves more capable than anyone could have imagined.
This unassuming graduate student, it turns out, was raised as a survivalist, and defends her would-be in-laws and their house with booby traps and improvised weaponry. You're Next is far from a perfect movie, but watching Erin work is sublimely satisfying.
Unlike Vinson's borderline superhero, Michelle more readily invites our identification—although a talented artist, she's otherwise an everywoman. But her mind is constantly at work, a trait that 10 Cloverfield Lane makes apparent right away. Shortly after waking in the bunker, she manipulates the pole supporting her IV drip to snag her phone from across the room and whittles one end of a crutch into a sharp stake.
The history of horror movies is well populated with logic-defying, characters who make us want to scream at our screens (Don't open the attic door! Don't go out into the woods alone! Don't read that demon-summoning spell!), but Michelle is quietly and inescapably effective, somehow less likely to panic than the audience. Her resistance places her in direct opposition to Howard's prepper brand of patriarchy—emphasis, rather upsettingly, on the "paternal."
10 Cloverfield Lane, happily, is far from the first feminist horror movie in recent memory, but what distinguishes its protagonist is not just her desire for action, but that this empowering impulse emerges as the film's central theme. The worst possible nightmare 10 Cloverfield Lane can conceive of—beyond any fateful bus trip not taken, beyond any abduction, beyond any globally devastating attack—is inaction, and the regret it inevitably begets.
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.