Did you feel like Event Horizon was a little too scary and didn't spend enough time explaining another completely separate movie? Did you find Sunshine could have been better with less compelling characters and a more poorly defined inter-character dynamic, in addition to providing unnecessary exposition for a totally different movie in the process? Well, if you did, then The Cloverfield Paradox might just be your dream movie!
In many ways, it shouldn't come as any surprise that The Cloverfield Paradox went about the same way as the first installment in the "Cloverfield" franchise. Way back in 2007, a mysterious trailer appeared before Transformers that featured a decapitated Statue of Liberty head landing in the middle of a New York City street. And that was about it. What ensued was a viral marketing campaign the likes we've not seen before in Hollywood. Fans searched studio-created websites to suss out what the film could be. Was an the long-rumored Voltron film? (Where is that, by the way?) Was it another American attempt at Godzilla? Turned out, those rumors weren't terribly off-target. Mystery box lover J.J. Abrams had produced a kaiju film with a unique thought: what if we made a kaiju film in which you never see the monster or the attack? Basically, what would a kaiju movie look like if you stripped it of all the cool stuff that makes people like kaiju movies.
The "found footage" approach is ultimately what makes the first Cloverfield so disappointing despite featuring some interesting components. The strength of the film overall was it's marketing campaign. A similar thing occurred years later with 10 Cloverfield Lane, only with two key differences. First, the marketing wasn't exactly "mysterious" as much as it was secretive and delayed. A trailer did not come out until about a month and a half before the film's release. (There was a website and a game created for that "viral" feel, but it was pushed far less than Cloverfield.) Second and most importantly, it was backed by a genuinely good film.
The Cloverfield Paradox very much borrows from the first film, only with perhaps more troubling implications for the industry overall. Though rumors had been circulating for some time about a third installment, no one knew anything until a trailer was released in the first half of the Super Bowl. Even more, it turned out that the film would be dropping on Netflix later that night. Putting out a trailer and releasing the film on a streaming service during the most watched television program of the year is marketing brilliance. It sacrifices long-term build up and anticipation with a quick reminder of this franchise and giving a freshly informed audience immediate access.
A tactic like that is especially significant for a film like this. As many have noted, the film isn't exactly good. Anything following 10 Cloverfield Lane would have been a bit of a letdown, but The Cloverfield Paradox is a jumbled mess of a film that never quite seems sure of what it wants to be, what it wants to do, or even what tone it wants to strike. The acting is good, but that can't save it from a mediocre script filled with cheesy dialogue, extraordinarily contrived action sequences, and borderline comical death scenes. Worst of all, it fails primarily because it never establishes the characters or their relationships enough to merit concern once they hit the metaphorical storm.
It borrows a lot from Event Horizon, but never quite commits to be as thrilling or horrifying. In fact, everything revolving around Chris O'Dowd's arm is almost hilarious. Yet it also borrows a lot from Sunshine, Danny Boyle's underappreciated sci-fi film (that might actually be my favorite of his films). Boyle spends a good amount of time establishing his characters and depicting the social dynamic on the Icarus II. That effectively establishes a reason to care about the cast and feel scared when they are in peril, as well as sad when someone dies. Director Julius Onah never quite does any of that. Indeed, he conjures up some visuals that kill the desired emotion, and late in the film, moves on quickly from a character death. It is also nowhere near as focused as those other sci-fi thrillers.
That might be because of the most intriguing mystery of it all. Was The Cloverfield Paradox meant to be part of the "Cloverfield" brand from the start? It sure doesn't feel like it. Sporadically throughout the film, they cut back to Earth with Michael, the husband of our protagonist Ava Hamilton. At first, it seems as if this serves to connect us to Hamilton's reason for fighting so hard. She's already been gone a while, and when she ends up in a parallel universe, she desperately tries to get home to her husband. Except it doesn't take long to figure out that Michael's primary purpose has nothing to do with this film; rather, he is providing more connective tissue for the original Cloverfield.
The Super Bowl trailer made heavy use of Cloverfield footage, likely figuring that would help lure people in after the game. With the reminder of this - at a minimum - interesting sci-fi franchise and the promise of explanations, fans hoped to get some explanation as to the cause of events for the first film. Michael's entire story is centered around the monster's initial appearance. The Cloverfield Paradox attempts to explain that the monster probably came to Earth from a different dimension when a tear in space-time opened up (the result of the Shepard's experiments to create new energy). But none of that is, in any capacity, relevant to the main plot of this movie.
As a result, it feels crammed in there after the fact. Even more, the very title of the film feels jammed in there as well. One character is watching a news interview with crazy author Donal Logue, who drops a very conspicuous line of dialogue about how this experiment could open up a portal to monsters or demons. He then calls...something...the "Cloverfield paradox," but the film never makes much of an effort to explain what the paradox is. Or even, really, what's paradoxical about any element of the story.
What feels like forced inclusions of Cloverfield references only harm the focus of this film. Those sequences and moments aren't the main reason the film fails in whatever it is trying to do, but they certainly don't help it. At the same time, those sequences don't even succeed at providing adequate explanation for the "Cloverfield universe." They don't even make sense chronologically. In case you don't remember the events of the initial film, this universe appears to take place in our own. Everything is totally normal. It's just a normal world with normal friends going to normal parties in normal New York City, and then a giant monster happens to attack it. There is no information about what the monster is or where it came from. It just appears. (This is actually the most interesting thing that film does, for the record.)
Here, they try to explain that the world was in a desperate search for renewable energy, with global oil wars on the verge of outbreak. Global catastrophe is on the horizon, which prompts the nations of the world to construct a super particle collider in space (which itself doesn't make any sense in its own right). There are lines at the gas station reminiscent of the Carter administration, and power outages are just a normal part of life.
Apart from the fact that the monster "came from another dimension" doesn't make any sense in the context of The Cloverfield Paradox (seriously, they just go to another reality where everything is pretty much the same and there are no hints at monsters or aliens); it makes no sense in the chronology of Cloverfield lore either. This film tries to explain Cloverfield by reversing the sequence of events. That film ends with older footage from earlier in the year when the main couple was at Coney Island. The keen observer would notice a small object that appears to crash into the ocean far in the background. Previously, the rumor had been that that object must have been the monster itself, or that whatever it was woke it up. Yet The Cloverfield Paradox heavily implies that the escape pod holding Hamilton and Scmidt was that object.
With just about ten seconds of thinking about it, this can't be the case according to the previous films. In Cloverfield, the sequence of events was this: thing crashes into the sea behind them, everything is normal for a while, a monster attacks, the world breaks out into chaos. According to this film, however, it goes like this: nothing is normal, the world is on the brink of chaos over oil and power outages happen all the time, a monster attacks, the world breaks out into chaos, and then a thing crashes into the sea - literally right next to the beast. (And god help us if we even try to figure out where the events of 10 Cloverfield Lane fit into this. I am choosing to segregate it because it's such a great film and seems pretty clearly its own thing.)
If someone wants to argue that the "paradox" in question is that, much as two realities can't occupy the same space-time, the larger implication of these events in the same universe can't also be true at the same time, well, that's pretty shoddy storytelling that comes straight out of a '90s comic book. Perhaps the paradox is that "Cloverfield" is so interesting as an anthology series that explore similar themes through a sci-fi/thriller lens, and yet by virtue of being a franchise, the creators feel a need to connect the (nonexistent) canonical dots between them. "Cloverfield" is now at once an interesting and stupid thing at the same time.
On a slightly different level, the marketing and release of The Cloverfield Paradox also highlights a glaring weakness with streaming distribution - something many of us gamers might have already been wary of: quality control. The Cloverfield Project feels like a film the studio knew would bomb. It's hacked up and ambiguous about what its function is. Is it a stand-alone film, or a "Cloverfield" film? Is it trying to do its own thing, like 10 Cloverfield Lane, or is it trying to provide answers for Cloverfield? It's hard to imagine this thing was planned to be what it was. It is equally difficult to believe that this film would have done particularly well at the box office. It would presumably have had a relatively healthy opening weekend because of the brand, but when reviews start coming out and word of mouth spreads as to how bad it is, it likely would have been a financial bomb for Paramount Pictures.
So, distribute it through Netflix directly! For starters, people are more likely to give it a shot since it comes at no extra cost to them. They pay that $11 a month (or whatever Netflix costs now) either way. And if it's terrible, they can just turn it off. (I suspect this would also be true of Bright - which I still can't bring myself to watch after seeing how awful the first five minutes were.) Even more, they released it the same day they announced it, which is perfect! Rope people in before critics can see it, or anyone can tweet about how terrible it is. Because Netflix needs publicity rather than box office returns, it works out for them. Because Paramount undoubtedly figured the film would bomb at the box office, they could sell it to Netflix for a profit. It's a win-win for everyone (well, minus the consumer). It's genius.
To be sure, there is no shortage of hacked up films that studios know won't do as well as they need it to that still see the light of day in theaters. It wasn't that long ago that Justice League hit cinemas everywhere, and yes, I did bring myself to watch the dumpster fires that were Suicide Squad and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. However, studios should feel the financial pressure of those missteps. If they want to greenlight a bad idea and then struggle to fix it through excessive meddling, they probably should lose money on it. The biggest reveal of The Cloverfield Paradox is that, especially with a franchise label attached, studios now have a mighty convenient exit strategy for films they know are bad.
REDUCTIVE RATING: It's bad.