Once again, Netflix has spun gold out of creating a cultural disruption, and the movie at the center of the commotion almost doesn’t matter. When they purchased THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX from Paramount, it was seen by many as an admission of surrender on the part of the studio, but Netflix used the Super Bowl to create a “are they really doing that?” moment that turned this off-loaded acquisition into a sudden sensation at a fraction of the cost of a full marketing campaign.
So is the movie any good?
This is a very strange series overall. The first film is a clever take on the giant monster movie genre that took on a larger life thanks to a novel approach to marketing that took some cues from Disneyland. That’s all the ARG thing really is, these follow-the-breadcrumbs games that invite fans to dig into the world of the film, uncovering story threads and world-building details that don’t necessarily show up in the film anywhere. It’s like when you’re in line at The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, or Pirates, or any of their big signature rides. The entire time you’re queued up, they’ve got things setting the mood. Funny gravestones. A Spanish fort. A jungle hut. They start to immerse you in the world before you actually get to the ride, because they know that the ride itself is very short. It’s a way of giving you more of the experience and dropping you deeper into it. The second film, a surprise to people who had assumed that the first movie was a one-off, seemed to mark a shift into something more akin to an anthology series, a Twilight Zone where they could tell any kind of genre story. There’s nothing about that second film that overtly means it has to be set in the same world as the first film.
Now it feels like they’re making a bid to have it both ways, with The Cloverfield Paradox serving as a lynchpin to everything they’ve done and everything they could do. It’s a cheerily silly movie that occasionally pretends to be a very serious movie, and it’s really weirdly bolted together. I’m not sure I’d call it a cohesive movie. But there are plenty of things in it that are fun and that are well-made and, for those who care at all about the larger Cloverfield franchise, it’s pretty much an Easter Egg display case of a movie. It feels like the exact right kind of film for a Netflix debut, a movie that the obsessives will immediately rewind and watch again and that the casual viewer will most likely feel better about as an investment of two hours on the couch than the full price and hassle of a theatrical experience. It feels expensive, but it played just fine on my nice home theater system. We’ll talk more about Annihilation, similarly sold to Netflix by Paramount, later this month, but I’ll say now that I feel very strongly that Annihilation is a theatrical experience first and foremost. They’re very different kinds of films. The Cloverfield Paradox is much more of a confection, a SF haunted house ride, constantly hoping to play with the audience.
The film deals with a mission to use a massive particle accelerator space platform to solve an energy crisis which has the world on the brink of war. Much of the world-building is done on the periphery of the film, and that’s where you’ll see all the connections to both of the previous films. It’s on one of those peripheral screens that we catch a glimpse of Mark Stambler (Donal Logue), a TV pundit warning that the experiments are likely to cause a tear in the time/space fabric, opening the door to monsters and alternate realities, and not just in the present, but in the past and the future as well. That is enough of a foundation for them to now tell any story they want, and if The Cloverfield Paradox has a primary problem, it’s that they set too big a table and then barely take advantage of it. It is hard to give yourself this much room to play because it’s almost like a test of your imagination. Just how limber is it? If you can do literally anything, then why do so many of the elements feel familiar?
Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is part of the crew of the Shepherd, the orbiting station where the experiment takes place, and she is there not only because she believes in the urgency of the mission, but because she is running from a personal tragedy on Earth. The crew is made up of terrific character actors who do a lot to prop up some thin characterization. David Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl, John Ortiz, Chris O’Dowd, Aksel Hennie and Zhang Ziyi are all well-cast, and I did feel like Julius Onah’s greatest strength as a director is making room for his actors amidst what could easily just be a technobabble buffet. You’ve got to let the human being register, or nothing works, and it feels like everyone finds things to do that make them feel like actual people, which helps when things get wiggy. And, oh, boy, do things get wiggy.
I’ve noticed something about the scripts by Orien Uziel and the films made from them so far. He’s good at pitching these types of ideas, movies where there’s a big supernatural or science fiction buy-in, something that suggests a really crazy story, but when it comes to execution, it never really feels like he figures out how to make that big crazy idea come to life. The Kitchen Sink, which was filmed as Freaks of Nature, was supposed to be this crazy hodgepodge of genre with vampires and aliens and zombies all colliding into something wild and out of control, but it doesn’t work. It doesn’t figure out how to make all of that fun or scary or anything focused enough to justify it. The Shepherd runs several years of experiments as things on Earth gets more and more tense, and it finally comes down to a make or break handful of experiments left to go. They make an adjustment, they get it right, and then BLAMMO! The Earth disappears and things start to get aggressively weird. There are some great touches here, including the introduction of another crew member (Elizabeth Debicki) and a few scenes involving Chris O’Dowd’s arm that play with Carpenter’s Thing/Evil Dead II vibe. There are some nice set-ups for moral quandaries/emotional gut punches, but they feel fumbled in the end. Most fatally, it feels like there are a few places where they don’t even try to find a clever or interesting way to get their characters out of a tight spot. They just say, “Hey, let’s do it backwards!” and it works. That’s not particularly compelling or interesting, and it only increases the feeling that we’re on a ride where there are no real stakes for the characters.
What I suspect will drive the most conversation about the film is the stuff involving Michael (Roger Davies) and Molly (Clover Nee) back on Earth, running parallel to the story onboard the space station. It apparently takes place during the first film, or at least that’s how it feels based on one truly beautiful effects sequence where Michael is on the side of the road, standing in the rubble of a building, and sees a giant monster go by. It’s evocative and haunting. And the film ends with a big ol’ “See you for a whole bunch of sequels!” moment that once again makes it clear that this is that same world, and that there’s way more going on than the first film implied. The whole “world on the brink of war because of an energy crisis” vibe that is so much a part of this film’s set-up is nowhere to be seen in Cloverfield, which doesn’t make sense, but so be it. They’re building it as they go, and they’re playing this big weird game of “Yes, and…” that will be interesting to see unfold. I can think of way worse ideas for franchises than “young filmmakers get a chance to tell a weird genre story in this world where there are very loose rules,” and it feels like each of these films so far is worthwhile individually. This is the most disjointed of them, though, and it’s precisely because it feels like it has to do the heavy lifting to turn this into a real franchise, somehow stitching this together into a not-nearly-wild-enough ride.
Still… it feels like a shrewd move from Netflix, top to bottom. They got everyone talking (again) and they would be the perfect home for dozens of Cloverfield films to come. It may turn out to be a turning point for them as a real alternative to theatrical level events, the game they’re clearly hoping to be in with this and Bright and the upcoming Mute. Or it might be a really nice hiccup of hype. Only time will tell.
Running time: 102 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic