Film, Film Review

REVIEW: The Cloverfield Paradox (2018) dir. Julius Onah

Mission Failure

by

[Heads up, this review is spoiler-y]

The Cloverfield Paradox is a mess.

A big mess.

As a fan of the series, it’s a disappointing realization to say the least. I love the first movie. It’s bold and campy in all the right ways, and in telling little about itself, it created a self-contained movie that fostered conversation. I was further enamored when 10 Cloverfield Lane was revealed to be an extension of the series, the true beginning of a horror/sci-fi anthology series: one in which J.J. Abrams could stamp his name to a production, adding funding and marketing to creative horror and science fiction movies and screenplays. It was exciting, a system to destabilize the industry’s approach to summer blockbusters. Instead of another Transformers sequel squeezed in between two Marvel movies, perhaps we’d get something else. And for two movies at least, this was true. 10 Cloverfield Lane ended up being not just a hit, but also an impeccably made thriller, with some late-addition surprises to keep it in the Cloverfield spirit (albeit without a real shared universe connecting the two).

Prior to the Netflix release, The Cloverfield Paradox had a similar path as 10 Cloverfield Lane, at least until Paramount closed the micro-budget label that had produced the latter and was producing the former. Paramount took The God Particle underneath its main label, and, during production, the film became officially connected to Cloverfield, requiring additional rewrites and filmed scenes. This happened similarly with 10 Cloverfield Lane; specifically, its monstrous ending was a last-minute addition. As filming on what was still then known as The God Particle continued, Paramount saw that the film’s budget had increased significantly and realized that a traditional release model would not be enough to recoup the expenses. So Netflix paid to release the movie, guaranteeing at least a little profit for Paramount, with the expectation that the movie—The God Particle, still—would be released around its rumored April time frame, with a trailer appearing in January or February.

Obviously, Netflix decided to take a wildly different and unexpected release route.

The Cloverfield Paradox had no promotional material whatsoever beyond the normal entertainment press. Industry folks and fans had heard of the movie, knowing at the very least that some Cloverfield movie was being made and coming out, and that The God Particle was this movie. As an avid Cloverfield fan, I was looking forward to it, both because of the Cloverfield label and because of the cast, led by a personal favorite, Gugu Mbatha-Raw. These expectations for the next Cloverfield installment changed, of course, when a teaser during the Super Bowl premiered that promised not only answers to the original movie, but also a release on Netflix immediately after the Super Bowl had ended. It was brilliant in its brashness, paying off via social media buzz and post-game views.

I’ll admit, the audacity of the marketing for each Cloverfield movie plays into the series’s seduction, precisely because it’s so outside of the box. The first Cloverfield offered little more than a mysterious teaser attached to the Transformers movie. J.J. Abrams was then best known for Lost, so a new mystery box project from him was exciting. 10 Cloverfield Lane released a surprise trailer, and this was noteworthy, because no one knew that it was going to be a Cloverfield movie until the trailer appeared. Unlike other film franchises, Cloverfield refuses to follow the traditional marketing and release model. With The Cloverfield Paradox, the series broke new ground for a film release in a big way. The closest comparison would be Lemonade, although, of course, the comparisons stop there. Lemonade is a cinematic masterpiece, full stop. The Cloverfield Paradox is… not one.

After watching the movie, it becomes clear that the surprise drop was more of a clever attempt to override the fact that Paramount, Netflix, and J.J. Abrams did not have a very good movie on their hands.

Pictured: A dream cast for literally any other movie.

The movie focuses on the Shepard particle accelerator aboard the Cloverfield Space Station. Our primary character—if you can call someone so thinly written a character—is Ava Hamilton, a British scientist asked to join the station’s crew. Earth is suffering from a global energy crisis, with the requisite rolling blackouts and “world on the brink of war” details, and the Shepard is a last-ditch effort to provide unlimited energy to a slowly crumbling world. Ava makes the difficult decision to leave her husband behind on Earth, and she embarks on a mission along with teammates from across the globe, who prove to be a more diverse version of the types of characters one might find in an Alien movie—which, now that I’ve mentioned it, is sort of a proto-Cloverfield model; the movies are connected by the alien Xenomorph, but each movie is tonally different from the one before it.

The Cloverfield Paradox’s defining feature, aside from its continued dullness, is that it appears derivative of other sci-fi movies and tropes, like Alien, as opposed to working to present something individual and unique. Even when the movie does tap into the unexpected, it undoes it by remaining endlessly surface-level in order to quickly move onto the next plot point. It’s a movie made up of beats, with little thought given to the rhythm of those beats as a whole, and almost no room to breathe, to reflect. It’s basically a generic straight-to-DVD movie, made a little more prestigious by the cast, Netflix, and J.J. Abrams.

The most infuriating scene, setting the tone for the film that follows, is a news sequence that Ava watches as she and her crew work to launch the Shepard. In this movie, exposition comes no matter how intrusive or unprofessional. Because, let’s be real, if I knew that the space crew tasked with saving the world was watching television while working, I’d be furious. Anyway, Donal Logue—I just don’t care enough to look up the character’s name, so I’ll be referring to the actor—expounds his theories that the activation of the Shepard has the potential to rip open the universe, allowing monsters and mayhem to occur, not just on Earth, but in every dimension, past and future. After this exposition drop, the Shepard is successfully activated, but only briefly. The movie then, finally, approaches some semblance of storytelling, as the station and its crew experience strange occurrences, ranging from the absurd to the horrific. Likewise, Ava’s husband on Earth must now contend with rampaging monsters, as he escapes to a bunker with a lost child.

The news sequence is, then, a catchall explanation for everything in this movie, the prior Cloverfield movies, and any future ones. What was promised by the Super Bowl teaser is explained within the first 30 minutes of The Cloverfield Paradox. All of these monsters in the series are due to the activation of the particle accelerator. I put a spoiler warning at the head of the article, but honestly, this explanation is so non-eventful, I’m not sure the warning was necessary.

Even in the context of The Cloverfield Paradox when it was just The God Particle, the news report scene spells out the entire movie via clunky writing. What’s worse is that the possibility of the particle accelerator experiment ripping open the universe is brought up several other times by characters. “You know, that Donal Logue character says we might see demons.” “You see that news report about the monsters that could take over the earth because of this particle accelerator?” Any sense of mystery or tension is removed. Not only do we know why crazy things happen to the characters, we aren’t given any room to question or explore. The answer is endlessly, “Oh, the rift in the universe is causing all of these wildly different things, no matter how big or small.” Women appear out of nowhere, worms teleport, arms are dismembered, and basic space station equipment fails, murdering folks left and right. It’s the science fiction version of when fantasy writers explain everything via magic. It’s lazy writing and storytelling at its core, seemingly used by the writers because it sounded “cool.” It’s the film equivalent of a stoner, circa 2010, talking about the Large Hadron Collider and the Higgs boson. Granted, those discussions were fun, but I wouldn’t film them for a two-hour movie. 

I suppose I am being hard on The Cloverfield Paradox, but it’s just not a very good movie. Certainly, some of the shots are great, the CGI provides some beauty at turns, and the actors are charismatic enough to help one get through watching the movie. Unfortunately, it’s not enough. The movie isn’t even fun in a B-movie kind of way, although there are glimmers of campy greatness, just as much as there are glimmers of general greatness. In these details, the movie attempts to have something interesting to say: questions about multiple dimensions, about whether individual lives are more important than a global population, about the question of survival in high-concept situations, about whether one Earth is more important than another, even questions about how cool would this hypothetical space situation be. As I type it out, I’m enthralled by the creative possibilities. Instead, the movie brushes past them, as if merely suggesting a “deep” question is the same as exploring or engaging with it, or as if assuming that something is fun is the same as it being fun.

The movie’s central problem is that it doesn’t do either well: deep sci-fi questions and “cool,” horrific events are both shown poorly.

The film’s final scene is perhaps the best example of how the movie undercuts itself at every turn. It is also, inexplicably, the movie’s best scene. In it, Ava has managed to escape the Cloverfield Station on an escape pod in order to return to the earth’s surface. She’s not aware of the monsters that have been terrorizing the world, and her husband is likewise unaware of the horrors Ava is escaping from, as their stories run parallel with each other with no interaction beyond the initiating experiment. Ava’s husband, on a call with ground control, learns that Ava is on her way back. He begins shouting into the phone for ground control to tell Ava not to return, to avoid the horrors wrought onto Earth. The camera then shows Ava’s escape pod falling, with Ava’s husband yelling via voice-over, and a gigantic Clover-esque monster bursts through the clouds and roars. It’s meant to be a thrilling scene, and the question of whether Ava would have or should have remained on the Cloverfield Station is a clever, ambiguous way to end a movie. But this scene is spoiled, overdone on arrival, by the preceding movie. We knew about the monsters on Earth all along, which removes any emotion or tension the, admittedly, well-crafted scene could have offered. 

The closing scene makes it seem as though the storytellers decided on the initiating event and the clever ending, without doing any work to connect the two into a film worth watching.

Honestly, cut all of the husband scenes on Earth out after Ava leaves, and you have a decent 60-minute movie. Or better yet, you have more room to craft better characters and storylines, rather than wasting half your movie on a B-plot that weighs the whole thing down and deflates your ending. Of course, arguably, with its monsters, bunkers, and people running through a city in chaos, these scenes were added in order to make The God Particle into The Cloverfield Paradox

The Cloverfield Paradox is a stumble for the series, exploring its interesting premise and resulting questions only on the surface, just as much as it endlessly tells its story, as opposed to showing it. Likewise, we may never know just where The God Particle ended and The Cloverfield Paradox began. Perhaps one or the other had the makings of a good movie, before they were brought together, an experiment that unfortunately failed.

All that being said, I’m certainly not going dismiss the series. I appreciate just how bold these Cloverfield movies seem to want to be. We are certainly in a time of great transition in the industry, and the Cloverfield model is intriguing. With J.J. Abrams’s backing (now with Star Wars credibility in addition to his Lost credibility), independent and, more importantly, original science fiction and horror movies are able to reach a larger audience, all while experimenting with new models of marketing and release. It’s still exciting, especially because the Cloverfield series offers audiences blockbusters outside of the traditional franchises, and it offers new directors the chance to have their movies viewed. This is especially important given that The Cloverfield Paradox, with its black woman lead and black male director, was given a boost, allowing voices usually marginalized to take center stage in genres that so often exclude them.

I’m certainly being optimistic, perhaps even naive, trying to find the positive in a dud like The Cloverfield Paradox, but hopefully J.J. Abrams will continue to use his industry clout and privilege in order to make the Cloverfield series something of long-lasting value, a platform for burgeoning directors and derided genres. The Cloverfield Paradox is a misstep, but I still look forward to the next experiment.

The Cloverfield Paradox
2018
dir. Julius Onah
102 min.

Now streaming to some device in your house via Netflix

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