Since watching The Cloverfield Paradox, I’ve developed a curious fondness for it, as if it were a child thrust into an online playground of hot takes, bearing the unwanted pressure of “changing movies forever” on its modest back. There’s just something so inoffensive about a mid-budget original (despite its pasted-on franchise label) sci-fi film that wants to play in the same sandbox as both its heady and thrilling predecessors, but ends up flailing in sometimes hilarious imitation of its inspirations. This is the kind of film where scientists discover that parallel universes exist and promptly react to this paradigm-shifting discovery by squabbling inanely (to be fair, their lives hang in the balance too, which, of course they do, otherwise what’s interesting about parallel universes?) or cracking painful jokes. It’s the kind of original genre film that had nearly vanished from theatres, retreating to DVD-only and then VOD with the resurgence of billion-dollar franchise filmmaking post-MCU and Disney’s ravenous expansion, and is now thrust into the limelight by Netflix to herald a change in the way movies are watched and distributed (the change arrived a while ago, when Netflix, Amazon, et al. started funding movies and blurring the lines between theatrical and streaming releases, TV, and movies).
I had high hopes (mostly developed, literally, over the course of a few minutes!) for The Cloverfield Paradox, because I’ve loved the unpredictable Twilight Zone-esque genre-hopping thrills of the first two Cloverfield films. It also boasts an impressively talented, inclusive cast that includes Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who charmed millions in “San Junipero,” and surely deserves more lead roles), David Oyelowo (of Selma fame), and Ziyi Zhang (best known to global audiences from her kinetic turn in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
Unfortunately, The Cloverfield Paradox can’t weather the brightness of the limelight that Netflix has shone on it, as witnessed by its dismal critical reception and a social media response that was, charitably speaking, tepid. Which makes this silly, tossed-off movie less (or more) than benign all of a sudden, transforming it into a symbol for the way the future is transforming cinema. This is a small (though not exactly low-budget) movie that its producers have made look big by mere power of suggestion, wrangling a production they seem to have had little regard for into a win by manipulating a lack of a marketing campaign (barring an undoubtedly expensive Super Bowl ad spot) into its marketing campaign. It’s the first time a big franchise movie’s ever been released with literally no fanfare until the night of its release (except some murmurs that it existed, and was once known as The God Particle, during its production). A surprise blockbuster fed straight to your home, from none other than J. J. Abrams (who’s a producer; directing duties went to Julius Onah, who does the best he can with this mess) and Netflix. It’s a magic trick, an illusion, a corporate version of the low-key sorcery of creating overlapping parallel universes with almost no big visual effects (done here by just having people and things appear in places they don’t belong).
As much as I love the idea of surprise genre or franchise movies with little to no marketing campaigns (I fondly recall not seeing a single glimpse of the monster in Cloverfield or [redacted] in 10 Cloverfield Lane before watching the movies), this particular release feels more like throwing both this film and the Cloverfield franchise under the bus to get a big, splashy reaction and lots of views (mission accomplished, I suppose). This is a formulaic, unremarkable “crew stuck in the close confines of doomed space mission” story in the familiar tradition of Alien, Solaris (more the Soderbergh than the Tarkovsky), Event Horizon, Sunshine, and the recent Life. It does not need to be a Cloverfield movie, at least not in the explicit way it’s been forced to be, and only suffers from its assimilation into this vaguely shared universe.
To sum up; the crew of the Cloverfield space station, led by Kiel (David Oyelowo), is tasked with testing an immensely powerful particle accelerator called the Shepard, created by Tam (Ziyi Zhang), to solve a severe energy crisis which has left Earth on the brink of war. Our POV crewmember is Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Ava Hamilton, who’s torn with guilt and grief over the death of her two children, and has fled to space to prevent dealing with these feelings (as one does). The fact that she gets a backstory, as opposed to the rest of the crew who have all the depth of throwaway NPCs in a video game, is what clues us in to the fact that she’s our protagonist. Other characters include the belligerent and suspicious Russian, the religious one who happens to also be named Monk, the funny Irishman, the Chinese crewmember (the facts that Tam developed the Shepard and speaks Mandarin instead of English are details that I appreciated, but they’re literally the only things distinguishing her as a character), the noble captain, the suspicious German (who the suspicious Russian is suspicious of), and the Mysterious Stranger.
The Shepard has the potential to generate infinite energy for the Earth, if the crew can get it to work. There’s a catch, of course—when it does work, its power ends up creating the “Cloverfield Paradox,” allowing other realities to merge with ours (or theirs, as it were) and potentially releasing “monsters, demons, beasts from the sea,” in the words of a naysayer on Earth. It’s a solid idea, to unify the anthology nature of the Cloverfield series (if entirely pointless too). So far, so good. A Cloverfield movie on a space station threatening to rip space-time apart needs some monsters. But there are no monsters, except for a few brief, shoehorned moments that bridge this movie with the first in the series. There is, instead, a chamber drama a la the first two acts of 10 Cloverfield Lane, where characters attempt to plan an ultimate escape from a dangerous close-quarters situation while trying to figure out whether they can trust each other. This is fine, if not for that initial promise of “monsters, demons, beasts” and cosmic weirdness that seems to have been shoved in there solely to refer to other movies (the creatures from past and possibly future entries in the series). That the only real ambulatory antagonist for the crew to face off against turns out to be other (poorly written and therefore not very interesting) humans inevitably sends The Cloverfield Paradox crashing into anticlimax, after being spun into space by its tantalizing talk of quantum entanglement gone wrong and monsters leaking through realities. This is the space vessel drama of Sunshine without the visual splendor of a dying star looming like a behemoth over everything; it’s Alien without the alien or the artistry; it’s Event Horizon without the campy excess and hellish kitsch; it’s Solaris without the existential grandeur and pathos. As a result, it ends up looking a bit too much like the least interesting of its kin; the recent Alien-on-the-ISS riff Life, a stolidly mediocre space thriller which had the advantage of a bigger budget and an actual alien, albeit a rather uninspired one.
It doesn’t help that Oren Uziel’s screenplay is sometimes comically bad in a way that hovers at the edge of self-awareness without ever fully embracing it. Consider this dialogue, between Belligerent Russian Volkov (Aksel Hennie) and Funny Irishman Mundy (Chris O’Dowd):
Volkov: Earth disappears. Station does not feel the same. A woman appears in the wall. We’re definitely not in Kentucky anymore.
Volkov: Kansas? Really? Who gives a shit?
Mundy: People from Kansas?
Is the above bad dialogue or self-consciously ridiculous? I honestly can’t tell, but it made me laugh. Unfortunately, when the story narrows in on Hamilton’s grief and guilt, of loss and reckoning with the potentialities of doppelgangers, the screenplay ceases to be entertainingly amusing and just becomes dull. Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s heartfelt performance (there’s a monologue she delivers near the end that seems lifted from a much better movie because of her efforts) becomes the only saving grace as the focus shifts to her underwritten protagonist. The Cloverfield Paradox can’t decide whether it wants to be a cult camp classic or a sleek character-driven sci-fi thriller, and it ends up being neither. For a film in which Chris O’Dowd’s arm becomes a multi-dimensional plot point (a high point, undeniably), it remains stubbornly staid. The cast is uniformly excellent, and manages to salvage the entire endeavor somewhat, giving the obligatory noble sacrifices and deaths a weight the writing doesn’t earn. But I couldn’t help but long for the mindfuckery so tantalizingly teased by the film’s outsized ideas to manifest. Alas, we’re decidedly stuck in Kentucky-Kansas, despite the screenplay’s attempts to tell us otherwise.
The Cloverfield label just adds insult to injury, necessitating an entirely unnecessary subplot which follows Hamilton’s husband Michael (Roger Davies) on Earth as it falls into chaos in the wake of the Cloverfield Paradox. The claustrophobic Earth-bound scenes list along in a half-hearted, limited evocation of the other Cloverfield films that just made me want to rewatch those instead. After the teased cataclysm of these scenes, there is a smugly nihilistic money shot right at the end (which also mirrors the ending of Life) that’ll make you crave everything the movie doesn’t actually deliver.
So, in the end, the real Cloverfield Paradox was the friends we made along the—no, wait. The real paradox here is art existing within late-stage capitalism. Art … finds a way. Netflix is a monopoly that’s devaluing the theatrical experience of cinema, sinking great movies into poor release schedules and subpar promotion, oversaturating their own library and drowning out perfectly good movies and shows, and wrangling mediocre-to-bad movies with prestige casts (like Bright and The Cloverfield Paradox) into release events for the eyeballs. It’s also a platform that’s bringing movies and TV to more people than ever before for a (so far) reasonable price, and funding idiosyncratic, diverse and interesting original projects. Because of streaming companies taking up the slack from big studios (and huge advances in special effects), there has been no better time for mid-budget sci-fi and fantasy to compete with the juggernauts of Disney and Warner’s franchises, from superheroes to Star Wars. Not so long ago, it would be unthinkable to see an adaptation of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation appearing alongside Duncan Jones’ sixteen-years-in-the-making personal sci-fi pet project Mute (albeit both deprived of proper theatrical releases), not to mention TV adaptations of Richard Morgan’s hard-boiled cyberpunk noir Altered Carbon and richly detailed space opera The Expanse that often look as slick as (and more imaginative than) big-budget tentpole movies.
Duncan Jones sums it up well, talking about how he finally managed to get Mute made:
There used to be a time when middle-budget movies had support from the independent arms of the studios to make films in that $20 million to $40 million range. And that just disappeared. It’s gone. Dead. So, Netflix, Amazon, Apple, these places have started to pick up the slack. And I’m incredibly grateful for that because, on a creative level, it’s now an outlet for different kinds of movies to get made. So that’s a huge “pro” in the situation. The “con” is you have to play by their rules. And as much as it hurts me sometimes to think, God, there’s never going to be a big opening of this movie, we’re never going to get the chance to show it on huge screens everywhere and do that side of it. There are not even going to be DVDs or Blu-rays. So that part of it is not ideal. But the benefits: if Netflix hadn’t picked this up it wouldn’t have gotten made. That’s just the truth of the matter.
The Cloverfield series is interesting because it’s a melding of a franchise with original standalone genre stories. It relies on mystery for marketing, rather than bank on the spoiler industry of set photos, plot breakdowns, predictive articles, leaked spoilers, teased teasers, teaser trailers, trailer trailers, trailer premieres, ugly character stills, and hastily designed posters that now precede blockbusters like a fell multimedia wind. Netflix (and J. J. Abrams, caretaker of this multiverse) has exploited this to gift-wrap a subpar movie because fellow corporation Paramount didn’t have confidence in it. Hopefully this doesn’t kill a franchise that prides itself on standing apart from its predictably over-advertised contemporaries. I assume it won’t, unless the next one is a failure, because this marketing gimmick probably did get Paradox a high viewership. I would suggest to all involved: next time, get some good writers.
The good news remains that, for all its cynical marketing ploys, Netflix is still funding and releasing original, good art that makes its way out there despite corporate fuckery (just as good art continues to weather the traditional studio system, though hard times ahead, no doubt). Not for the sake of art, but because Netflix knows it can tap into the audiences that the Hollywood studio system has left in the dark (which includes international audiences for things other than superhero movies).
So if The Cloverfield Paradox disappoints, I would remind one that Netflix also released Bong Joon-ho’s Okja and Dee Rees’s Mudbound, two of the year’s best films, on its platform (and kept them from showing on as many big screens as they deserved). Go watch them if you haven’t. Show the suits what you love, and want. We live in interesting (and terrifying) times. Art finds a bloody way.