Review: ‘The Cloverfield Paradox’ Cheapens the ‘Cloverfield’ Mythology
In 2008, Bad Robot introduced one of the most exhilarating modern day monster movies with the ambitious Cloverfield. In 2016, the film became a franchise with the superb 10 Cloverfield Lane, a loosely connected sequel that’s part kidnapping thriller, part monster movie. Both films are famous for their surprise trailers and viral marketing campaigns, and Netflix continued that trend with the third installment, The Cloverfield Paradox, which was announced during the Super Bowl and released on the streaming service immediately after the game. It was a classic Cloverfield twist, but sadly it was wasted on a silly sci-fi movie so bad it’s an affront to the Cloverfield name.
WARNING: SPOILERS for The Cloverfield Paradox.
Like 10 Cloverfield Lane, the new film from director Julius Onah wasn’t originally written as a Cloverfield project. Screenwriter Oren Uziel conceived it as an standalone sci-fi concept, and then J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot swooped in, saw franchise potential, and converted it into a Cloverfield. After multiple release date changes, rumored reshoots, and a script that now credits Star Trek Beyond‘s Doug Jung as a co-writer, The Clovervield Paradox was passed (or should we say dumped?) from Paramount to Netflix for this sudden release.
Set in the year 2028 – which we know based on the movie’s Alternate Reality Game – the film finds a futuristic Earth in the midst of a catastrophic energy crisis. Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Ava leads a team of international astronauts on a mission to activate a particle accelerator from space that will unleash an unlimited supply of energy to save mankind. Her crew – including a German played by Daniel Brühl, an American played by David Oyelowo, Chris O’Dowd’s Irishman (lending the film some ill-fitting humor), a Chinese woman played by Zhang Ziyi, John Ortiz’ Brazilian, and Aksel Hennie’s Russian – spend two years trying and failing to activate the accelerator, until suddenly, it works. But then the first of many wacky twists arrives – the accelerator makes the Earth disappear. That’s a fascinating concept for a sci-fi film, but one the movie fails to deliver on.
First of all, the movie gives the entire plot away within the first 15 minutes. A conspiracy theorist (played by Donal Logue) summarizes the ramifications of the crew’s mission in a TV interview, hinting at the possibilities of ripping through space-time and allowing “monsters and creatures from the sea” to enter our reality. (Hm where have we seen a monster with an unexplained origin before?) The first half hour the film plays like an intriguing Twilight Zone episode, toying with the mind-boggling implications of the real-life Higgs boson particle, AKA the “god particle.” (The film was once titled God Particle, which is a way cooler name, but oh well.) But the movie hardly explores its fascinating real-science concept. Instead, it spirals into a series of bizarre yet familiar incidents we’ve seen many times before.
The film goes through every scenario of what could possibly go wrong on a space ship – They lose communication! The ship gets damaged! There’s a massive explosion! Bugs burst from a man’s body! A stranger (Elizabeth Debicki) appears out of the blue! A crew member is suspected of treason! Ripping off of everything from Alien to Event Horizon, Paradox is a melting pot of sci-fi space thrillers that brings little innovation to the table. Plus, if you’re going to steal from the past, at least make it entertaining to look at; Onah’s direction is about 90 percent extreme Dutch angles and 10 percent every other shiny space movie of the last five years. It doesn’t help that the plot doesn’t make much sense; everything that happens is so silly that Brühl’s Schmidt has to drop a few lines of exposition after every action set piece to break down the science of it all.
Occasionally, Mbatha-Raw and Debicki breathe some life into the stink of it all. Mbatha-Raw gives an impassioned performance as a grieving mother – her Ava, by the way, is the only one of the nine characters to get a backstory – but it belongs in a movie of higher caliber. There’s so little investment in her narrative that Ava’s big emotional moment plays like a rip-off of Matthew McConaughey’s iconic Interstellar breakdown. Debicki brings a calculated coolness to her mysterious foreigner Jansen, and her moments opposite Mbatha-Raw are the movie’s best, but the rest of the film can’t keep up with their energy.
In an unsurprising reveal at the end (remember Donal Logue’s foreshadowing?), Paradox explains the origin of the monster from the 2008 film, and neatly reveals how all three films (and likely, future installments) are connected. But we never needed these movies to be so tied together. Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane worked because they valued showing over telling. Those two films positioned the Cloverfield franchise as a refreshing alternative to cinematic universe fatigue, proving that thematically similar but unrelated stories could coexist under a single brand. Paradox is so obviously forced to fit into the larger mythology that it ultimately cheapens the mystique and uniqueness of the Cloverfield series.
At best, The Cloverfield Paradox is a schlock sci-fi movie that (all too appropriately) has the quality of a straight-to-video sequel. And at worst, it should have us worried about the direction of the Cloverfield franchise as a whole.