2018 | Unrated (PG-13 equivalent) | starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Daniel Bruhl, Chris O’Dowd, John Ortiz, Elizabeth Debicki | directed by Julius Onah | 1hr 42mins |
With now 3 films sharing it’s name, it’s still hard to call “Cloverfield” a franchise. It’s more of a brand name, a brand that is less defined by quality storytelling and entirely by secretive viral marketing, phony titles, plots under-wraps, surprise release dates and an overreliance on internet message board fans to expound on those clues and create a shared universe between them that doesn’t exist. A brand powered by J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot production company that either cares so much about it’s own secrecy that it gives these films code names before release – or – goes around scooping up half-made little movies without distributors and slaps the Cloverfield alien-invasion theme on them. After the mysterious marketing of Cloverfield and Abrams’ insistence that it wasn’t a Godzilla movie (it was), 10 Cloverfield Lane dropping quietly on an unsuspecting public and now The Cloverfield Paradox has dropped even more surprisingly – on Netflix, first announced during the Super Bowl on the very night it debuted. It’s a clever bit of surprise marketing that pushes the movie into a spotlight and against a level of critique it might not have had if it had just quietly been released in theaters to a few curious sci-fi fans.
The Cloverfield of The Cloverfield Paradox is a space station orbiting Earth in a near future where a fight over resources has brought nations to the brink of world war. So a diverse group of astronauts and scientists from varying nations have spent the last 2 years working on a particle accelerator that will generate renewable energy. With very little science in it’s fiction, the film drops our thinly sketched heroes in a parallel universe and writes itself a mystery box license to do whatever weird thing pops in it’s head. There are no rules, as the movie literally states, explaining itself with one repeated line: that particles are fighting themselves. Everything on the station has shifted, through and inside everything else.
The cast is fine, lead by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (an under-the-radar actress featured in the likes of Black Mirror poised to break out), but they all have very little to work with. Chris O’Dowd makes the comic relief character work, dropping one-liners with dryness where someone else would have make the character too goofy to fit in with a space station full of scientists. Director Julius Onah keeps things looking bright and moving quickly, unfolding a new oddity often enough to keep us from mulling over the film’s nonsense. Some of those oddities are kind of interesting, like a crew member from the parallel ship being fused with the wall and a disembodied hand that joins the cast. It’s almost like they thought up the hand bit and built a movie around that.
The movie is entertaining enough as it unfolds. By the time you’ve realized there isn’t much of anything to it, it’s almost over. Despite handing itself the keys to a creative kingdom with a do-anything premise, the film is increasingly limited by a lack of imagination. What was infinite becomes very tangible and The Cloverfield Paradox runs so completely dry of ideas that it resorts to a disappointingly routine cat-and-mouse psycho thriller for the climax. The 3rd act is unforgivable.
The single weirdest thing about The Cloverfield Paradox however is that it has a B-story involving Mbatha-Raw’s character’s husband (Roger Davies) back on Earth. What should have been a space station chamber film gives up it’s hand pretty early with the reveal (that it doesn’t seem to know it’s revealed) that pulls us out of the disorienting mystery and claustrophobia of the Cloverfield station crew. I hate to bring the far superior 10 Cloverfield Lane into this – as that movie is so good on every count it transcends this brand entirely – but imagine if that movie had a B-story following Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s boyfriend outside the bunker. The knock on this will be that the storyline goes nowhere, but it shouldn’t be here at all. Hamilton’s maternal ties to Earth and the film’s last minute reveal all still could have worked without an Earth-bound B-story setting it up and letting the air out of what could have been a tighter, more efficient mystery.
Paradox is empty even for a B-movie. Not as fun as it’s Doctor Who premise would suggest and certainly not as rich and well crafted as 10 Cloverfield Lane. Heck, it’s not even as fun as last year’s space station monster movie Life.