In the Cloverfield franchise, the element of surprise is paramount. Initially, in 2008, it meant a cryptic teaser trailer attached to a major summer tent pole film that had people speculating for months what the movie was even called, let alone what it was about. In 2016, it meant a trailer dropping for the “sequel” (a loose amount of Easter egg connections between the films being the M.O., essentially making the series an anthology), which had been shot in secret, a mere two months before the movie was in theaters. In 2018, it means secretly selling the latest installment to Netflix and dropping it online immediately after the Super Bowl. Producer JJ Abrams and his “mystery box” methodology never fails to disappoint on the surprise element, and the Cloverfield series is where it shines brightest.
So after the cleverness of the release strategy, is the resultant film any good? Rumors swirled online that Paramount Pictures, the financier of the movie and the studio that released the prior two installments theatrically, were nervous about the movie and wanted to experiment with the surprise Netflix sale/release rather than risk a middling theatrical run that would hurt their bottom line. Certainly they’d already publicly done just that sort of bet hedging with Alex Garland’s upcoming Annihilation, dumped to Netflix overseas due to a bad test screening that branded the film “too intellectual” for audiences. Obviously the prospect of sweet, sweet cash money from the streaming giant now was a more attractive proposition than a potentially poor exhibition. Fortunately, after all this, I can say that The Cloverfield Paradox (the final iteration of the movie’s title) is very good.
Essentially, the movie belongs to the grand tradition of “space station thrillers”, sci-fi parables that have been a cinematic staple for decades, with examples ranging from Saturn 3 (‘80) to Gravity (‘13). The Earth is undergoing a massive energy crisis, and a consortium of international governments (along with their representative astronauts) have pooled their resources to build the Cloverfield station (named for who or what, exactly??) which contains a particle accelerator, in the hopes that it could be used to create a new sustainable energy source. When a routine test of the accelerator goes awry, the crew of the station find themselves suddenly transported far away from the Earth...or are they, in fact, in another dimension?
While the original Cloverfield (‘08) was a found footage version of a kaiju “giant monster” movie, and ‘16’s 10 Cloverfield Lane was a slow burn of a long con about whether there was a alien threat outside a shelter or just a human one inside, Cloverfield Paradox is a jack-in-the-box sci-fi horror film where the rules of reality are broken and anything could happen. Up and coming director Julius Onah stages sequences for maximum shock effect, and as a result a perpetual sense of “oh my god what is happening” pervades the movie. Structurally, it operates like a monster/slasher movie, with each member of the crew being menaced and then bumped off. Only here, it’s not one creature or multiple creatures doing the bumping, but the dangerous collision of two realities on top of each other—think Final Destination(‘00) in space. All of this means the movie is a delight to watch, with a new gag or setpiece around every corner, each one being equally unpredictable.
As is producer Abrams’ trademark, the human crew is beset not just by immediate survival concerns but personal ones as well, and the film has a very effecting emotional core, helped in large part by the uniformily excellent cast. As the lead, Ava Hamilton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw is fantastic, able to handle the physical demands of the role but also letting every bad decision of her past and harrowing choice about her future register on her expressive face. Backing her up is Elizabeth Debicki, doing her always watchable serpentine act as a mysterious crew member who materializes after the station has moved. Daniel Bruhl is solid as always in the role of the station’s lead physicist, and Chris O’Dowd takes a comic relief role that could have been grating and makes him completely charming. Onah stages the movie in such a way where, even if it’s impossible to know where M-deck is in relation to Z-wing, it’s always clear where each character is and where they are in relation to each other. This attention to geography makes the movie’s crew feel truly like an ensemble. It’s a hard balance to strike in movies like this, and here it works excellently.
Not that there aren’t bumps in the road, or glitches in the system. For as many surprising elements the script (by Oren Uziel and Doug Jung) throws at us, there are some painfully cliched moments—if you’ve seen one heroic sacrifice scene, you’ve seen ‘em all. The unpredictability also means that some gags never get quite enough explanation, with people being offed in spectacular but confusing fashion. The Cloverfield series connections here are mostly the same as the previous films: a Tagruato sign here, a Kelvin sign there, a Slusho sign over here. However, there’s a running subplot with Hamilton’s husband (Roger Davies) stuck on Earth as it goes into chaos following the station’s disappearance. Davies does a good job, and the sequence is as well shot as the rest of the film, but it nonetheless feels aimless, a bit of character work for no discernible purpose. Until the twist ending, which, thanks to the subplot’s existence, isn’t much of a twist, as it’s rather properly set up. The subplot feels like a cliff’s notes run through the Cloverfield films, as Davies goes from a disaster area to a bunker, and it sticks out as a (likely) addition to the movie to tie it into the other films, but it’s not clear why they went to such a degree of trouble.
Despite the structure being a bit awkward, The Cloverfield Paradox is a super entertaining and thought provoking slice of Twilight Zone-esque sci-fi horror, and a gorgeous looking and sounding one to boot. Onah’s cinematographer Dan Mindel makes the movie look exceptionally handsome, the sound design from Justin M Davey and Ken McGill is pervasive, eerie, and booming, and the visual effects from Industrial Light And Magic are top notch. In short, the movie absolutely deserves to be exhibited theatrically. Rather than being a grand experiment to subvert the film industry standards or cause a buzzworthy news cycle of surprise, Paramount’s dumping of the film onto Netflix is nothing more than a vote of no confidence, in the film or the brand. They took a look at the poor theatrical runs of Life and Alien Covenant (both last year) and concluded that big budget space station action/sci-fi/horror no longer deserves a big screen. It’s a troubling precedent, and the fact that, given Netflix’s current business practices, the movie may not only never see a theater screen but also may never appear on hi-def Blu-Ray/4K is a travesty. Seeing a movie with as many wacky surprises as this would be a fantastic communal experience, as opposed to seeing it alone late on a Sunday night curled up in your bed on your computer. The series may still have a buzzworthiness for now, but when it comes to devaluing an artistic medium, it may prove to be a new kind of Cloverfield monster.