It was a momentous moment for the City of Brotherly Love, although the Eagles’ victory wasn’t the only history made Sunday evening, as Netflix and Paramount conspired to deliver a surprise the likes of which the industry has never seen before: debuting, out of the blue, a heretofore-unseen film online, mere hours after announcing they’d do so via a nationally televised commercial. It was a bombshell that overshadowed the broadcast’s other high-profile trailer premieres and star-studded ads, as well as NBC’s long-awaited postgame episode of This is Us, creating instantaneous must-see excitement that had cinephiles curtailing their partying, firing up their coffee machines, and taking to their handheld devices and set-top boxes into the wee hours of the night.
Too bad, then, that the actual movie turned out to be a dud of the most derivative order—and, on the heels of Bright, another high-profile artistic flop for the streaming service.
The Cloverfield Paradox hasn’t been an unknown quantity, at least in general; the third entry in the J.J. Abrams-produced sci-fi series originally went into development under the name God Particle back in 2012, was shot in 2016, and has had a number of tentative release dates—first it was February 2017, then October 2017, then February 2018, and most recently, April 2018. Last month, reports began circulating that Netflix was interested in acquiring the shrouded-in-secrecy project, a move that—depending on one’s perspective—either suggested that the company was continuing to become a studio-level power player, or that Paramount had so little faith in the film that they wanted to relieve themselves of any and all theatrical-roll-out responsibilities. From the outside, it was tough to tell exactly what was going on here, since despite all this maneuvering, the studios wouldn’t even let slip the movie’s title—which also only came to light during its groundbreaking Super Bowl reveal.
Paramount and Netflix’s strategy was a hype-building one for the ages, transforming The Cloverfield Paradox into the immediate talk of the cinematic world. Alas, it was a stunt backed by little substance. Helmed by little-known director Julius Onah, the film is a monumental letdown, so drearily rehashing Alien, Event Horizon and their imitators that it barely registers as an original endeavor. Playing like Cloverfield fan fiction, it’s an origin story that explains how the Statue of Liberty-decapitating behemoth wound up on Earth—and in Manhattan—in 2008’s original series entry, while also providing a framework for 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane. Neither of those works was in desperate need of explanations for their supernatural mayhem; on the contrary, they were best when keeping things mysterious. However, Abrams and company clearly thought differently, so now we have a feature-length account of the events that gave birth to those predecessors’ monstrous circumstances.
Prepare to be underwhelmed.
As written by Oren Uziel, The Cloverfield Paradox consistently makes sure its audience is always two steps ahead of its action (and characters). That situation is apparent from the outset, when voiceover narration informs us that the world is on the brink of war and ruin thanks to an energy crisis—right before we then witness a conversation between Ava (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her husband Michael (Roger Davies) in which that state of affairs is again overtly spelled out. Earth’s only hope is the Shepard Accelerator, a device with the potential to generate unlimited energy. However, because it’s so dangerous, it has to be activated in space, thus requiring Ava and an international team of astronauts to travel to the Cloverfield Space Station to try to get the device to properly operate.
Describing the crewmembers played by Daniel Bruhl, Chris O’Dowd, David Oyelowo, Zhang Ziyi and John Ortiz would be pointless, since they’re all given no more than one personality trait and/or backstory-ish motivation. Worse, those scant characteristics feel doubly flimsy since they’ve been photocopied from Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic (though the crew is, thankfully, far more diverse). That’s similarly true of the aesthetics of the space station—all dank, steamy industrial corridors and mechanical rooms—and at least one set piece, in which a Russian technician (Aksel Hennie) falls strangely ill and is taken to a medical bay, where his body suddenly, violently expels disgusting creatures.
Unoriginal to its core, The Cloverfield Paradox kicks into gear once the squad successfully turns on the Shepard Accelerator, only to subsequently lose sight of Earth. There’s no question as to what’s occurred, however, since an early TV interview with Donal Logue’s author makes clear that this is a worse-case scenario known as a “Cloverfield Paradox,” in which the Accelerator has ripped a hole in the space-time continuum and sent the crew to a parallel dimension. As if that heads-up didn’t totally murder any sense of intrigue, Logue also surmises that such a portal might supply demons and monsters with an entryway into our world—so if you were wondering how this all fits into the greater Cloverfield universe, or what the film’s big final image might be, wonder no more!
Uziel’s script additionally focuses on an enigmatic woman (Elizabeth Debicki) who’s found inside the ship’s walls, as well as O’Dowd losing his arm, only to find it again, dragging itself along the floor. None of those incidents, nor the moral dilemma ultimately faced by Mbatha-Raw’s heroine—who lost her kids in her universe, but has a chance to reunite with them in this new dimension—are the least bit engaging, mainly because there are numerous semi-related narratives competing for attention here, all of them half-formed, painfully clichéd, and haphazardly stitched together to create the Frankensteinian end result.
Of course, 10 Cloverfield Lane was also a stand-alone endeavor that had some series-tethering elements tacked onto it at the last moment. Yet at least that tinkering was largely confined to its last few minutes. Onah’s installment, on the other hand, comes across as a collection of second-rate ideas that, at a late date, were radically retrofitted to elucidate things no one wanted elucidated in the first place.
Sorry on its own terms, The Cloverfield Paradox proves the limits of trying to salvage troubled movies via franchise-extending gimmickry. Moreover, for Netflix, it suggests the perils of prizing hype above all else—a mistake that makes the streaming service seem like a dumping ground for the studio’s straight-to-VOD-worthy misfires, and reconfirms the fact that nothing is more dispiriting than when buzz backfires.