By: Hawk Ripjaw (Four Beers) –
JJ Abrams’ Cloverfield series is a fun idea: a sort of loosely connected series of monster-themed anthology films developed in secret and later tied together into the same world. So far, it’s worked with 10 Cloverfield Lane (sort of), but the limitations of that idea, or at least the problems that come from making a Cloverfield movie after that very movie was made without Cloverfield in mind, are obvious in this third film, The Cloverfield Paradox.
One of the most exciting aspects of each of these films is the marketing, which withholds as much as possible from audiences and lets them try to pick apart the clues in the posters and trailers and speculate wildly what the movie is actually about. These movies are driven almost purely by fan hype, and the small window between trailer and release for 10 Cloverfield Lane made the excitement even more palpable. These movies are events, and the amount of speculation leading up to them is a huge part of the fun of finally watching them.
It had been known for a while that upcoming sci-fi thriller The God Particle was almost definitely going to be the next Cloverfield movie. The absence of a trailer was worrisome. Then the movie got pushed back to April. Then it was rumored that Netflix was going to pick it up, and possibly release a trailer during Super Bowl LII. And then Netflix probably made history by casually dropping a short trailer during Super Bowl LII with the announcement that it would be available after the game. Just like that, we can watch it, sans the intrigue of minimalist trailers. Already, it’s missing an important element of the Cloverfield experience, and already one is suspicious why Netflix wanted to force it out so quickly and abruptly.
In keeping with the spirit of the Cloverfield films, the plot is best experienced firsthand: suffice it to say that a group of scientists (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Daniel Bruhl, David Oyelowo, John Ortiz, Chris O’Dowd, Zhang Ziyi, Aksel Hennie) are aboard a space station, experimenting with a particle accelerator to solve a crippling energy crisis on Earth. As it does when foolish humans use it incorrectly, the space technology begins to cause major, frightening, reality-shifting problems for the crew. The Super Bowl trailer promised that we will “find out why” the monster came to Earth in Cloverfield.
We don’t find out why the monster came to Earth in Cloverfield. We do, however, find out why this movie had such a problem getting released theatrically.
The opening moments of The Cloverfield Paradox are tense and propulsive, bouncing between loud shots of the crew working aboard the space station and silent white-on-black cards listing the cast, before the excellent score creeps in and sets the mood. This movie starts out very, very strong and asks a lot of great questions to stage a mystery with potential. The first act in particular is mysterious, chaotic, and bizarre. Few clues are given as to what is going on, there’s some great body horror, and things feel grim the way these claustrophobic space horror movies should be. There are some tantalizing possibilities for how exactly this could tie back to the original movies.
In fact, most of the first half of Paradox puts together a great mystery, consistently adding more questions and weird, horrifying twists to make its characters more confused and miserable. The hope is that the finale will tie everything together with a profound or sinister reveal that calls back to everything else in the movie, connects to the other films, and makes all three of them more satisfying to rewatch.
Unfortunately, everything makes about as much sense by the finale as it did in the rest of the film, which is to say it does not make sense. It’s all setup with almost no payoff, so by the time one character’s lost arm is found somewhere else in the station, the explanation for it isn’t substantial enough to really matter in terms of the larger Cloverfield mythology. There’s no defining principle or real central point, and it often feels like multiple people tried to tell different stories and never communicated with each other so the final product is just this bizarre, unfocused student project with a half-dozen incomplete individual parts.
The script does the film no favors, either. Aside from the boring characters, extreme over-reliance on exposition, and useless subplot following Mbatha-Raw’s husband on Earth, this movie has no idea what it wants to be. Body horror, psychological horror, climate issues, grief, cosmic terror, international tensions, whodunit–there are so many opportunities for a great sci-fi thriller in here, and the movie rarely spends more than a couple of minutes on any of them before abandoning them completely. At times it just feels like a weird sizzle reel of cool things for no reason, and at least half of those things are suspiciously reminiscent of other, better space station horror movies.
The way it gorges itself on gonzo concepts and situations would work better if the movie could just find a consistent tone. Chris O’Dowd is both the movie’s secret weapon and greatest downfall, with a decidedly Chris O’Dowd-flavored response to all of the wacky things happening to the crew. Yet the entire rest of the movie besides this one character is so grim and foreboding that when O’Dowd’s character loses his arm, his first response basically amounts to “haha, I’m one of the silly people from The IT Crowd, where’d my arm go?” His incredulity at the events in the movie feels genuine, but incongruous with everything else. Mbatha-Raw’s emotional half-arc also feels out of place.
Another apparent factor in these movies is that, at least for 10 Cloverfield Lane and The Cloverfield Paradox, they don’t start out as pieces of the Cloverfield “universe.” They get most or all of the way into production, get noticed by Abrams, and receive some retooling to fall closer in line with the original movie’s creature feature. This led to a surprising but not unforgivable finale in 10 Cloverfield Lane that sort of felt like it was connected to the original movie but felt just as much a spiritual sibling to it. Paradox, by drawing a direct connection to the original film, suddenly has to work its entire narrative around what caused those events and can’t tell its own story.
That’s the problem: The God Particle started out as something completely different before Bad Robot picked it up, changed the title to The Cloverfield Paradox, and reworked it into a Cloverfield movie. Note the contrast to 10 Cloverfield Lane, which felt like it existed in the same conceptual wheelhouse but was its own thing–part of the Cloverfield anthology. As a separate story, it was able to be bizarre on its own. Paradox feels the need to directly tie to the original, and it just feels forced and still doesn’t really end up explaining anything.
We’re at a point where the Cloverfield universe needs to decide what it is. Up until now it’s been a great way to showcase high-concept ideas from fresh talent and let the fan hype drive the marketing and unite them as a fun anthology series. With Paradox, it feels like it’s turning into a system of snatching up promising indies and shoehorning references to the Cloverfield monster into them. A Cloverfield cinematic universe about monsters (as opposed to a strict anthology) is fine, but the movies involved in it need to be built from the ground up if they’re going to have direct connections.
It’s a great shame, because The God Particle could have been really cool before it got shoehorned into the Cloverfield anthology. It starts to explore elements that could make a classic sci-fi horror, but then it explores five more and leaves all of them behind. There are good ideas here, but they’re never used well. It is also horribly obvious that this did not start as a Cloverfield movie. Exactly who is primarily at fault for the movie’s fatally disjointed feel is not clear, but there’s enough promise in the original idea that it’s disappointing either way. It’s got some solid performances, a slick look, and a number of great, thrilling sequences, and had it been left alone as its own thing and maybe given another 15-30 minutes of run-time to make it feel less rushed, it may have been a bit better. As it stands, it does a disservice to the Cloverfield idea and cheapens Netflix’s game-changing release model.
The Cloverfield Paradox (2018) Drinking Game
Do a Shot: every time Chris O’Dowd says “My arm”
Take a Drink: for every loud noise
Do a Shot: for every line drawn to Cloverfield
Take a Drink: whenever something bad happens