'The Cloverfield Paradox'
From the beginning, the ‘Cloverfield’ franchise has been as much about J.J. Abrams’ interest in marketing as it is about the movies themselves. This weekend, Abrams’ pulled off his greatest ‘Cloverfield’ magic trick yet by announcing, without warning, the Netflix release of the almost-forgotten ‘Cloverfield 3’ during the Super Bowl and then premiering it immediately afterwards. That was an ingenious marketing stunt that’ll be remembered for a while. That the movie is pretty good is almost an afterthought.
The fact that ‘The Cloverfield Paradox’ is probably the least effective entry in the franchise to date hardly matters. Everyone will remember how the film was released even if they might forget which ‘Cloverfield’ movie it was that came out that way.
After the surprise giant monster movie and the creepy John Goodman thriller that no one knew was a ‘Cloverfield’ sequel until just before it was released, ‘The Cloverfield Paradox’ sat on some hard drive space at Paramount for over a year until this sudden Netflix debut. There are a number of theories about why that happened. It might have been because the film was originally supposed to open at roughly the same time as last winter’s strikingly similar ‘Life’ and Bad Robot wanted to avoid the competition or comparison. Or, it could be that Paramount got cold feet about this odd movie and didn’t want to sink its shrinking resources into an inevitably expensive ad campaign. We’ll probably never know. This is a movie filled with unanswered questions and confusingly entertaining shocks. It only makes sense that the release follows suit.
So, what is this thing? To put it in broad movie reference terms, ‘The Cloverfield Paradox’ is a mixture of ‘Alien’, ‘Sunshine’, and ‘Event Horizon’, with a little Lovecraftian horror and conceptual sci-fi head-scratchery tossed in. Oh yeah, and some ‘Cloverfield’ subplots and semi-explanations too. It’s one of those sci-fi/horror yarns that takes place entirely on a cramped space station for maximum claustrophobia when the horror half of the genre sandwich snaps into place.
The plot: Earth is suffering from an immense energy crisis and scientists have hatched a solution that involves using a particle accelerator to tap a new and unlimited source of energy. The experiment is so damned dangerous that it has to be conducted in space. A team of scientist/astronauts from around the globe are sent up into a specially commissioned space station to engage in ludicrously dangerous experiments that could, as explained in a quick bit of talking-heads news coverage exposition, tear a hole in the space/time continuum and open up alternate dimensions.
You’re going to find this hard to believe, but that horrible possibility does come true. The experiment works, but reality goes all wonky. The scientists find themselves transported to a parallel dimension and strange things come with them. A mysterious new crew member (Elizabeth Debicki) appears out of nowhere and is plugged into the electronics of the ship for some reason. One scientist (Aksel Hennie) finds his body going all topsy-turvy and gooey. Another scientist (Chris O’Dowd) has his arm melt into the ship unexpectedly and pop up seemingly sentient elsewhere. Reality is questionable. A body count piles up and the closest thing the movie has to protagonists (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo and Daniel Bruhl) find themselves utterly baffled with what to do as the very nature of reality crumbles around them.
There are some pretty clever ideas going on here. What they have to do with ‘Cloverfield’ is a reasonable question. It’s pretty clear that, just like ’10 Cloverfield Lane’, J.J. Abrams found a strong sci-fi/horror screenplay and then shoehorned it into his established universe. It’s a nice idea for this franchise to continually serve up surprises by essentially growing into an anthology series loosely linked together by a title and giant monsters. On the other hand, neither of the sequels connect to the franchise very smoothly. ’10 Cloverfield Lane’ felt tacked-on, like a last minute twist that would have been more effective if somehow no one entered the theater knowing they were watching a ‘Cloverfield’ sequel. ‘The Cloverfield Paradox’ feels even more tenuously linked, even though it at least suggests that the events of this movie kind-of kicked off the Cloverfield disaster. The details aren’t too ironed out, though. Theoretically, we’ll learn more in the next sequel. Or not.
Taken on its own merits, ‘The Cloverfield Paradox’ is a perfectly enjoyable bit of trippy sci-fi and body horror pulp. The effects are strong and icky. Director Julius Onah has talent serving up set-pieces and delivers some delightfully nasty and visceral shocks. He also cast extremely well and gets wonderful performances out of a collection of actors who deserve better than the one-note roles they got and add at least a half note to their characters. Like any movie that posits reality disappearing, the plot has huge leaps in logic and holes that fit the concept but will infuriate anyone who values narrative consistency and logic over other cinematic pleasures (i.e. most of the internet). Think too much about this thing and it crumbles. Plug in and enjoy the wild ride, and there’s fun to be had.
This leaves the ‘Cloverfield’ cinematic universe in an odd place. Does this mean the movies are all on Netflix now? Or is this a one-off oddity because the studio behind its production lost faith in the final product? Are we starting to get some answers as to what this series is about, or does the multiverse paradox mean that ‘Cloverfield’ sequels can now be about anything and we’ll never have continuity?
The important thing is that while this franchise is always going to be a little inconsistent (both between movies and often on a scene-by-scene basis within them), whatever the hell is next will come out of nowhere like a slap in the face. In an age of pre-sold, heavily-branded tentpole movies, that’s at least something to look forward to.