In recent years, music industry PR gurus started a trend where they use ninja-like stealth to release surprise albums from major recording artists like Beyoncé and Rihanna. Their line of reasoning: As it gets harder to market albums, the buzz that comes with a surprise debut will help the record stand out. And now, with The Cloverfield Paradox, Netflix is getting in on the act. In an unexpected move, Netflix announced the film would be available to stream right after the Super Bowl. So is their decision savvy marketing meant to capitalize on the year's biggest television event or a crafty move intended to overhype a trash film before critics can tear it apart?
Welcome Back to Cloverfield...
The film begins with humanity’s future in peril. Earth's population has swelled to over 8 billion people and civilization no longer has the resources to bear this load. Even the once-mighty United States is subject to rolling blackouts, and the lack of energy sources has driven countries like Russia, Germany, and China to the brink of war. In a last-ditch effort to save the species, earth sends an international team of scientists into space to work on a particle accelerator that can potentially solve the energy crisis. After two years of trial and error, the team finally gets the machine to work, and that is when s#!t gets real.
For starters, the earth is no longer right below the station and the crew can't figure out where they are. The team's bewilderment is the least of their problems. They begin hearing screams echoing from inside the walls of their ship, and unexplainable incidents start happening to the crew. With their own resources running low and the team dying off one by one, their new mission is to survive long enough to get their findings back home.
Cloverfield hit theatres in 2008 and when its 2016 follow-up, 10 Cloverfield Lane made its debut, audiences wondered if both films existed in the same universe or if the Cloverfield title represents an anthology series. After all, 10 Cloverfield Lane was written as a standalone movie before it was bought and rebranded as a Cloverfield installment. The answer, and this is a minor spoiler, is both. The story’s particle accelerator tears a hole through space, time, and alternate dimensions, ripping open a doorway for monsters, demons, and any other hellions you can imagine to pass through. So, while The Cloverfield Paradox provides the inciting incident that leads to a monster tearing through New York and John Goodman hiding out in a bunker, these stories could be taking place in parallel versions of earth.
I enjoyed the first two Cloverfield movies and so I was looking forward to jumping back into the world through this new entry. Unfortunately, this film isn’t as fun as its predecessors. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a tense thriller, a claustrophobic game of cat and mouse featuring stellar performances and an engaging mystery. And Cloverfield is a non-stop adrenal rush, a found-footage spectacle with enough tense beats to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. The Cloverfield Paradox has no real hook and no standout moments; it’s a generic movie that fades from memory as soon as it’s done. Which is a shame, because director, Julius Onah, has too many great tools available in this production's toolkit.
The best aspect of this movie is its slick production values. Space suits, computer terminals, and the look of the station all have a grounded sci-fi aesthetic. The technology is cool to look at but not so futuristic looking as to border on fantasy. I’m smitten with the DP’s approach to lighting and shooting the station. Visually, the film shows flashes of Blade Runner, J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek, and Prometheus-era Ridley Scott. I loved how shades of glowing amber washed over the actors’ faces as they traversed the station. But what really stands out is the body horror, the film's best bits. I won't spoil how the crew members meet their demise, but these moments are inventive, shocking, and pulled off with visual flair.
You couldn't ask for a better cast to class up this pulpy genre story. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl, Ziyi Zhang, and John Ortiz all deliver what the script requires of them, human fodder amid empty spectacle. The script is only concerned with giving its hero, Mbatha-Raw’s character Hamilton, anything meaty to chew on. The exception here is Chris O’Dowd, an actor who has been on my radar since his The IT Crowd days. O’Dowd stands out as the film’s comic relief, but once the characters began meeting their bitter end, I wasn’t disappointed to see anyone go.
Despite its Cloverfield lineage, The Cloverfield Paradox is a by-the-numbers sci-fi thriller that is the first total misstep from the brand. A crew goes up into space, things go awry, and wild s#!t starts happening. There's not much more to it. Event Horizon, Sunshine, and even the highly flawed 2017 film, Life, do a better job telling similar stories with more emotional impact. Despite a great cast, stunning production values, and the Cloverfield package, the film is just an average sci-fi flick that fails to reach its potential.