Netflix's 'The Cloverfield Paradox' Is the Franchise's First Misfire
This post contains major spoilers for The Cloverfield Paradox.
Netflix pulled a real quarterback sneak.
The Super Bowl has long been the marketing launch pad for big Hollywood tentpoles -- people (i.e. nerds) are still talking about that first Independence Day teaser -- but this year, as the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the New England Patriots, the streaming behemoth leveled-up. For the first time in history, a game-day trailer teased a major release, which was then (almost) immediately made available to watch. Anyone willing to stay up past their bedtime could be among the first to catch The Cloverfield Paradox.
Makes sense that it would be "a Cloverfield movie"; if you recall, the first one came out of nowhere, too. In summer 2007, the first reference to Cloverfield was just a date, "01-18-08," and a shaky-cam trailer with no known stars attached to the first Transformers. (The one where Bumblebee takes a whizz on John Turturro.) People didn't know what to make of it – there were even some who misheard a screaming man's "it's alive" to be "it's a lion" and, therefore, the mystery movie was going to be live-action Voltron blockbuster.
It was not a Voltron movie. Instead it was one of the better "found footage" flicks, one with just enough of a hint at a broader universe that, years later, trickster executive producer J.J. Abrams and his production company Bad Robot could take a script laying around the office (called The Cellar) and slap the ol' Clovy name on it (10 Cloverfield Lane) for instant branding. Good world-building or hucksterism? Debate still lingers, but I'll say Lane is a terrific little sci-fi thriller with one of the best John Goodman performances ever.
In keeping with the spirit of the other films, Abrams (who loves his surprises and mystery boxes) took a script called The God Particle, a movie that's had its release date moved around quite a bit, and changed it into The Cloverfield Paradox. Springing the movie on unsuspecting Super Bowls certainly worked: when the film was made available, a rush of anxious viewers locked up my Roku -- a first! (I had to watch on my laptop like an undergrad!)
The question: is there more to The Cloverfield Paradox than Hail Mary marketing? This thing was originally meant to get a traditional, theatrical release from Paramount, not a test case for stealth streaming. Well, I watched the damn thing and my report is... almost.
The Cloverfield Paradox is a little bit good, but it sure as hell is nothing compared to the legitimate event of the first film and slick filmmaking extravaganza of 10 Cloverfield Lane. While there are a handful of nifty sequences and good performances overall, this feels like a blown-out pilot for one of those SyFy series you always mean to get around to but never do.
The movie is set some time in the future. The world is a bigger mess than it is now. Resources are down and war (Russia versus Germany? Again?) is just around the corner. Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is about to head up to a space station where she is part of an international team that will solve the energy crisis with a very dangerous particle collider. It's like Sunshine meets 2010: The Year We Make Contact -- but in a little bit it's going to feel an awful lot like Alien. And then it'll feel like Star Trek: Discovery. But then there will be some shots taken directly from Gravity. At the end it devolves to a generic action picture before a big dumb twist. This isn't to suggest that The Cloverfield Paradox is bursting with ideas. It's simply all over the place.
A serious bench of acting talent fills out Hamilton's mission crew, including David Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl, Chris O'Dowd (who is hilarious, as he always is) Aksel Hennie, Zhang Ziyi and John Ortiz as a character named Monk, who likes to pray before they fire up the "Shepherd," the doohickey that may bring life to a dying earth. Not too subtle. The project is called "Helios," but the space station is called "Cloverfield" in what feels like a last minute edit. So do the close-ups of the cable news guy barking about "the Cloverfield paradox" that could rip open spacetime and bring monsters to our realm. (Also the inserts of a "Slusho" toy and a "Kelvin" gas station, all in-jokes of Mr. Abrams.)
This movie opens with some really shoddy writing, but once you get past the first act and they get the drive to work, things settle into a groove. They jump into a parallel universe (they keep calling it a "different dimension," which is annoying, because that's an incorrect use of the word), and that's when trouble happens.
For starters, the consistently underrated Elizabeth Debecki shows up, which you think would be good since she's brilliant in movies like Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Guardians 2, but it's actually bad because she is inside a wall and has pipes and crap jabbing through her limbs. Then the crazy Russian guy 3-D prints a gun and goes all bananas until he barfs out worms. Something really weird happens to Chris O'Dowd's arm, but I don't want to spoil it. Nor do I want to say what happens to Zhang Ziyi's character, other than that is is a really cool visual with a slight nod to Lost. (Ziyi speaks all but one of her lines in Chinese, but everyone understands her, which either means the entire crew complement is bilingual or there's some Chewbacca thing going on here.)
Alas, all the wild imagery has to end, and a rote plot tries to tie everything together as our team attempts to make their way home. None of the oddball horror stuff is explained in a good way and the final act bogs down in chasing and fighting. Then there's the very end of the movie, that tries to staple some Cloverfield-ness to this all, which certainly won points from me for its audacity. (There are breadcrumbs along the way with a few scenes from Hamilton's husband, a concerned doctor played by Roger Davies.)
If this movie, either as The God Particle or The Cloverfield Paradox played in theaters it would have been roundly booed by critics and audiences alike. But as a surprise present on Netflix, it's absolutely more than serviceable in a "bad movie night" way. I had a blast making fun of this, and I didn't spend anything on gas money or tickets. If I hadn't gorged myself during the Super Bowl I would have hit that last remaining bag of microwaveable popcorn in the back of the cabinet. This was a bold step in entertainment marketing and, even though the product itself is basically crap, it was still a win for Netflix and consumers. This time next year, when a supposed fourth Cloverfield movie is expected to hit theaters, let's just hope the surprise is of better quality.
What are other critics saying about The Cloverfield Paradox? Kicking the sequel down to a surprising 17% on Rotten Tomatoes, here are what other critics have to say.
"Following the usual Abrams visual strategy, meanwhile, most of the actors’ close-ups in director Onah’s picture are really, really tight-upper-lip-to-eyebrow tight. In other words, they’re perfect for casual, half-committed consumption on an iPhone." - Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
"The fastest turnaround from must-see event to disappointing dud in history." - Adam Graham, Detroit News
"It’s hard to fight the sense throughout The Cloverfield Paradox that this film should probably have been a comedy." - Tasha Robinson, The Verge
"Are they going to tie this story into the “Cloverfield” timeline? That questions hangs in the air until the very last scene, a parting shot that feels like a direct slap in the face to anyone who’s been suckered into caring about this grand experiment in franchise storytelling. The only thing more insulting than watching this moment on your laptop would be sitting through it in a theater." - David Ehrlich, Indiewire
"As a theatrical movie, it would have been a nonevent; as a Netflix event it is, to coin a phrase, fake news" - Glenn Kenny, The New York Times
A few people... liked it.
"If you’re looking for a tight and engaging genre movie with a radical Black female lead, this film succeeds on almost every level." - Rosie Knight, Nerdist
"It's not a completely bad movie, and I was appropriately scared during the scary scenes and creeped out by the creepy scenes." - Ben Kuchera, Polygon