The Cloverfield Paradox review

In space, no one can hear you go over like a lead balloon.

What is a Cloverfield?

Is it the name of a unifying idea? A marketing strategy? The concept of a shared universe? An event within that universe?

What does Cloverfield tell us about the state of film and film distribution? Is it a movement towards something that celebrates movie audiences and rekindles a sense of the unknown? Or is it the encroaching rot of a system that is spiraling out of control with no clear destination in mind?

It’s probably all of this and more. And that’s the issue with discussing The Cloverfield Paradox: I’m not sure what matters anymore.

I saw the first Cloverfield film at a midnight screening near the USC campus in downtown Los Angeles. The film itself was fine but for most of my friends of a similar age, Cloverfield represented the first big ARG style movie promotion with clues and puzzles hidden around the internet and the world. It took cues most directly from hurried ideas implemented in The Matrix sequels and almost assuredly from Lost, but it also created one of the few marketing tie-in experiences that I felt directly improved my experience when I finally saw the film. I knew to look for small details in the background of certain shots. Even the elements that weren’t firmly rooted in the film subliminally added a layer of grounding to what I was seeing. Whether this is all confirmation bias or not, a decade later I still have more positive memories regarding the marketing around the film than of the film itself.

10 Cloverfield Lane was explicitly not produced as a Cloverfield movie, but rather as a simple indie thriller called The Bunker. With a new title that just barely tapped into the Cloverfield concept -- which I am having an increasingly difficult time pinning down -- it made just enough connection to consider this a shared universe. Again, the marketing on this one is one of my fondest memories of the film, as Goodman’s character had an elaborate computer program he had created for his daughter. This text-based version of an in-world Fallout Shelter taught me everything I needed to know about this character and introduced me to the concepts being played while constantly updating with new small hints at what was really going on. I’m fairly certain I would not have seen the film without having first sunk a few hours in this game.

Which brings us to The Cloverfield Paradox. Originally a script called God Particle that had been floating around Hollywood for up to ten years, this science fiction space station story dropped on Netflix in the middle of the Super Bowl. Why the Super Bowl is now our source of Star Wars trailers and surprise sci-fi is a discussion for another day; the bigger issue is that now Cloverfield skipped the marketing/hints phase of the Cloverfield release lifespan and instead opted for a surprise attack.

It is, undoubtedly, the least memorable of the three films in the (loosely-defined) series. I can see how Paramount would have been excited to skip the theatrical release phase for this one, but it also opens itself up to be The Most Narratively Embedded Cloverfield Film Yet, and the results range from excellent to bewildering.

Directed by the Nigerian-born, first-time feature header Julius Onah, Cloverfield Paradox revolves around a space station (named Cloverfield, appropriately) and a particle accelerator that could be used to save our planet. Earth is in turmoil from an energy crisis that has brought us to the brink of a new world war. Two years of testing have failed to produce results, until the team manages to activate a stable beam which tears open a hole in the fabric of space time and teleports them far away from the Earth.

In the original script for God Particle, this is where the crew realizes that not everything is as it seems, and that this accelerator is actually a weapon. The team turns on one another as backstories and identities turn out to be false, and it becomes a tale of humanity trying to determine if humans deserve to live, if this is their inevitable cut-throat conclusion.

The Cloverfield Paradox goes in a decidedly different direction from the God Particle script. A bunch of different directions.

In the wake of the teleportation, the gyroscope the station uses for mapping and travel has disappeared. Into the body of a dead crew member. We learn this when one of the scientists loses an arm and the arm begins crawling around the station, scribbling out information to forward the story. There’s also a woman screaming in the walls who was not a part of the crew for the last two years. It’s an entire act of pure madness that can’t tell if it want to be serious science fiction, bizarre body horror, or slapstick comedy.

In all honesty, with some minor edits, we could probably have had a movie that blended the three perfectly. Instead, Cloverfield Paradox accomplishes a rare self-defeat of being given room and the studio confidence to go as weird as it wants -- and then pulling back on that to no positive gain. It is straight-up infuriating. There’s a cast here who is already leaning into hilarious sci-fi deadpan (with Chris O’Dowd as the bright shining star) and a concept of reality stabilization gone so far amok it might as well be the Improbability Drive from Hitchhiker’s Guide To Galaxy. Instead, we hit a brick wall where suddenly everything goes grim-dark and we never really come back.

Almost more important than the movie itself is the way it is attempting to make Cloverfield into a narrative franchise instead of just a branding opportunity. And to be clear: I am always on board for seemingly unnecessary branding opportunities in genre films. Most of the Hellraiser sequels were just small, indie thrillers that no one would have seen if they didn’t write in five minutes of Pinhead and put a known IP on the DVD box. What is more puzzling is seeing Cloverfield 2: Basement Boogaloo and getting the impression that the series was branding itself as more of anthology experience, where aliens and monsters and whatever else could exist but didn’t need to. The Cloverfield Paradox goes out of its way to create the titular paradox, which is explained as a gateway allowing monsters and aliens and all types of weird things to flood the Earth. So there is an answer now for what to expect moving forward in the franchise: the planet done got Event Horizon’d.

That’s…. fine. It’s fine that there’s a portal to Hell and weeeeeird stuffff can just happen now. That’s fine and you’ve gone the distance of explaining it. But the Cloverfield series didn’t need that. In fact, I think it does much better without that. Because once you’ve written a blank check for weird then what exists to possibly hold us to the thrill of guessing? 10 Cloverfield Lane was great because it made you constantly second guess what was possible. If you know that film exists on an Earth with a giant hole in the sky leading to undead gods, then who cares?

It’s a fine movie. And it’s included in your Netflix subscription. There was no build up for it and there is no cool down. It exists and to its credit, there was never a moment I was bored or knew what was happening next. In a year or two, we’ll already be revisiting in to talk about how maybe it was an overlooked gem, and in all probability that will be decided by how the choices in the third entry for Cloverfield impacts all the films moving forward.

The Cloverfield Paradox isn’t a dud; it’s a split. There’s so much good and so much bad and so little in between, it might as well be two films.

Verdict: ?????