Dud on Arrival
Super Bowl LII, played on Sunday, 4 February, provided more surprises than just the underdog Philadelphia Eagles’ victory over the New England Patriots. During the game, Netflix aired a trailer for The Cloverfield Paradox, which ended not with a standard “Coming Soon” declaration, but with the unusual statement, “Coming Very Soon.” The streaming service then released a second trailer on YouTube, revealing that the film would be available to view immediately after the completion of the Super Bowl. Coming very soon, indeed.
The marketing seemed bold. Rumors had begun to swirl in January that a film previously called God Particle might get rebranded to tie in to the two previous installments of the so-called “Cloververse” franchise—Cloverfield, released in 2008, and 10 Cloverfield Lane, from 2016. Paramount had evidently scheduled the latest film to open in theaters on 20 April. Somewhere along the way, Netflix apparently stepped in and acquired the rights to the film. The streaming service advertised it during the Super Bowl, then made it available afterward in a brazen attempt to poach viewers from the network broadcasting the game, NBC, which aired a much-hyped episode of their popular Emmy-winning series This Is Us in the same timeframe. Needless to say, the Internet buzzed about the news.
In the modern world of entertainment, secrecy and surprise have become marketing tools. Studios and distributors sometimes limit the amount of information they parcel out before the premiere of a film, clearly intending to generate hype about a project in an attempt to drive a lucrative opening weekend. This happens most often with genre features, with ad campaigns frequently targeting the fanboy demographic. Such efforts can increase the box office for a good film, but they can also push lesser works to earn back the costs of production, or even to turn a profit. All of which is to say that the clever marketing of a film does not necessarily equate to its quality—and oftentimes, it can be an indication that the product being advertised cannot stand on its own.
In January 2008, Cloverfield debuted to generally positive reviews. Essentially a monster movie, it weaved through a breezy eighty-five minutes, providing some entertaining thrills and chills on its way to a satisfying ending. No one would mistake Cloverfield for Casablanca—or even for Frankenstein—but it further developed the found-footage subgenre popularized by The Blair Witch Project in 1999.
Eight years later, in March 2016, 10 Cloverfield Lane appeared in theaters. It too received generally good notices—better, in fact, than its predecessor. In another interesting marketing decision, the ad campaign did not bill the film as a sequel to Cloverfield. Indeed, the new project included none of the characters from the original, it told a story that seemed more drama or thriller than horror, and it eschewed a found-footage presentation for a third-person narrative treatment. Only the name Cloverfield tied the two films together, however loosely—until the end of the second installment, when the screenplay finally established a real connection.
And now, in February 2018, Netflix has released the collaborative universe’s third feature, The Cloverfield Paradox. The marketing—however brief—previewed a film that shares no major characters with either of its antecedents, and that stands firmly in the genre of science fiction. Similarly, only the proper name in its titles links The Cloverfield Paradox to the previous works—until the end of the film, when the kinship among the three tales becomes clear.
But unlike the Cloververse projects that preceded it, The Cloverfield Paradox bustles with visual effects and a large cast of well-known actors, presumably the result of a much larger budget. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Free State of Jones, Miss Sloane, and the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror) portrays a communications specialist taking part in a grand experiment aboard the Shepard space station. With Earth’s population facing an existential energy crisis, an international team has traveled into orbit, where they will employ a particle accelerator in an attempt to generate sustainable power for the entire planet. Daniel Brühl (Rush, Woman in Gold, The Zookeeper’s Wife), David Oyelowo (The Help, Selma, Queen of Katwe), Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids, Calvary, St. Vincent), and John Ortiz (Silver Linings Playbook, Steve Jobs, the television series Togetherness) also star.
The film sets up its premise quickly—and repetitively, with far too much blatant exposition. After an opening scene on Earth, the credits play across a sequence condensing two years of failed tests aboard the space station. Several character interactions are established, though they are not explored in any depth. The meat of the story begins with the first successful run of the particle accelerator, although the machine quickly shuts down. Still, there is cause for optimism, right up until the moment that the crew realize that they are no longer orbiting Earth.
Has the space station been thrown across the galaxy? Into another dimension or universe? Or has Earth been destroyed? All reasonable questions, but before the crew can seek out answers, peculiar events begin to happen. The station’s high-tech gyroscope—a critical piece of equipment for which apparently nobody thought to bring a backup—has vanished. An officer begins experiencing the uncoordinated movement of one of his eyes. Screams from behind a wall plate lead the crew to discover a woman painfully embedded within the station’s circuitry—a stranger, but one who knows the crew. Another officer has his arm swallowed by a suddenly mobile and voracious bulkhead, only for the arm to reappear elsewhere on the station; the arm not only still lives, but also possesses the capability of writing down a coherent message.
If all of that sounds ludicrous, that’s because it is—and the list of strange incidents doesn’t even include the space station’s supply of large worms disappearing, only for one of the engineers to explosively vomit them up with his dying breath. The basic problem with all such episodes—beyond the ridiculousness of them—is that they make no sense. The bizarre happenings do not constitute paradoxes, nor do they even appear related to any single underlying cause. It is not enough for the film to imply or for the characters to infer that the Shepard experiment birthed the inexplicable events; the audience requires, even without detail, some basic logical understanding of what is taking place. Instead, the oddities seem included in the script expressly for the sake of their oddity.
Worse, after the crew discover how to execute the Shepard experiment successfully, they also decide that, in order to set reality right, they must first repeat their failed run. The scheme is reminiscent of a 1960s sitcom, when the suggested cure for a character who’s gotten hit on the head and lost their memory is to hit them on the head a second time. Nothing like treating a traumatic brain injury by causing a second TBI.
The actors do the best they can with what they’ve been given, but the screenplay, in its best moments, achieves only pedestrian results. More often, the script is derivative, nonsensical, and even risible. The film also seems poorly edited—or perhaps poorly re-edited. Part of the story returns to Earth for several scenes that feel tacked on. Other plot points arise without ever being explained or touched on again, much less paid off. For example, John Ortiz’s character delivers a prayer that some of the Shepard crew welcome, while others plainly do not, but the issue is never raised again—as though some of the themes of the original God Particle script have been excised, albeit not cleanly.
If the writing does not serve the actors and the story well, neither does the direction. The film focuses on spectacle—a man’s eyeball moving independently of its mate, an arm crawling along by itself, worms violently disgorged—rather than on character. Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Hamilton and her earthbound husband (portrayed by Roger Davies) see some development, but not enough, and none of the other characters are fleshed out at all.
Overall, The Cloverfield Paradox is an absolute mess. The only thing approaching a paradox is spending more money and casting a slate of top-tier actors on the third installment of a series, but then producing a far inferior product compared to the first two. For those inclined to watch the film to completion out of curiosity about how it ultimately ties in to its precursors, you will likely develop suspicions early on in the story, thanks in part to some preposterously blatant foreshadowing. More than likely, you’ll be right, but that will come as no surprise; there’s nothing about The Cloverfield Paradox that isn’t either obvious or absurd. For your own moviegoing peace of mind, skip it.
* (out of *****)
©2018 David R. George III