It’s weird to realize that Cloverfield is ten years old this year, mostly because there are still so many questions I want to be answered. Where did Clover (the nickname given to the kaiju) really come from? What was the deal with those parasites, and why did they cause people to explode? Was the brief moment of capturing another guy filming on the Brooklyn Bridge really a seed planted for a possible sequel? What happened after the bombing in New York???
So when Netflix aired a trailer during the Super Bowl promising we would get some answers in a surprise sequel they’d make available right after the game, something short-circuited in my brain. I’m not going to lie, JJ Abrams’ brand of viral “mystery box” marketing is made for pop-culture obsessives like me, and this worked like a charm. I even made my poor, long-suffering husband leave our Super Bowl party early so we could go straight home and watch The Cloverfield Paradox. The chance to be in on the ground floor of this genre “event” was just too good to pass up, but I probably should have.
The Cloverfield Paradox was, for the longest time, a different movie entirely called The God Particle. The basic premise was the same — above a near-future Earth desperate to solve its energy crisis, scientists aboard a space station turn on an enormous particle accelerator and cause the planet below to simply disappear. It’s a killer hook, and when I heard that it would possibly be the third film in the anthology of films the Cloverfield franchise would eventually become I thought it would be a good fit. Unfortunately, Abrams and company decided to make The God Particle and the previous Cloverfield film part of a connected meta-story and this is where it goes wrong.
It’s impossible to talk about the film without talking about the marketing behind it. The original Cloverfield had a masterful marketing campaign, shrouding just about everything in the movie in mystery while teasing tiny droplets of information and connections through obscure websites and weird videos posted online. While it wasn’t the very first movie to build mystique through the internet (I’m looking at you, The Blair Witch Project), it was one of the biggest to do so and kind of formed the template for the modern Abrams hype machine. With The Cloverfield Paradox, announcing the film during the Super Bowl and making it available right afterward tapped into that same feeling of mystery and excitement while updating it for an audience that had gotten several surprise album drops over the last few years. This was the first time a movie studio surprise-dropped a sequel, though, and it could have been one of those things that signaled a fundamental shift in how films are released. The gambit only works, though, is the movie is good.
I’m sorry to say The Cloverfield Paradox is not good. By shoehorning The God Particle into this universe the writers took an intriguing premise and stuffed it with bad pseudo-science that insults the intelligence of its audience, moments of weird for the sake of being weird, and head-scratching moments that frustrate more than they surprise. Worse yet, The Cloverfield Paradox takes the shine off the mystery-box model and reveals how hollow that hype machine can be. Perhaps worst of all, it wastes the talents of an amazing, diverse cast including Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Chris O’Dowd and Zhang Ziyi.
I do have to give props to Abrams for tapping neophyte Nigerian director Julius Onah for the film, and for centering Mbatha-Raw as its leading actor. How many sci-fi movies do you see with a black woman as the main character? Hopefully, a lot more, because she is probably the best thing here. Even with all of the inexplicable craziness decimating the crew around her, Mbatha-Raw’s Ava manages to hold the story and keep it somewhat grounded in real human motivation. Her supporting cast does its best to roll with the twist and turns of the story, but ultimately they’re defeated by a script more concerned with shocking its audience than telling an entertaining or coherent story.
Ava Hamilton is one of a number of scientists aboard the Cloverfield Station when it disappears after a successful particle accelerator test turns out to be…not so successful. Meanwhile, the husband she left behind on Earth has his own disaster to deal with — an unknown event has destroyed much of the city he lives in. The set-up is the best part, and when the first act turns on the terrible thing that unleashes chaos on the station and the planet, it’s easy to get hooked by all of the questions it raises.
Except The Cloverfield Paradox isn’t interested in providing engaging answers here. After the scientists discover they’re in another dimension weird things happen to the crew that can’t be explained by that: Volkov’s eye suddenly goes into business for itself and he talks to himself in a mirror; the ship tries to straight-up eat chief engineer Mundy (O’Dowd); an Amazonian blond is discovered fused with the wiring behind a wall; the station’s gyroscope is found in the last place you’d expect to see it. Almost none of this is explained through the rest of the action, because the scientists are picked off one by one in ways you’ve seen done better in other sci-fi horror movies.
Back on Earth, Ava’s husband Michael (Roger Davies) isn’t faring much better. He’s basically stuck trying to explain this movie’s connection to Cloverfield in one-sided phone conversations, staring into the dark and smoke of his ruined city, or laughing with kids in old videos that Ava watches. We cut to him at weird times, so it’s hard to be really interested in his subplot — we just want to know what the heck is going on with the station. Ultimately he sets up the final stinger in the movie, one last surprise that denies anyone a happy ending. By that time, your disbelief isn’t so much suspended as assaulted and thrown in a ditch. Oh, that happened? Sure, why not?
I really wish The Cloverfield Paradox was a better movie than it turned out to be. The franchise could have been the heir apparent to thoughtful, twisty sci-fi adventure that’s been sorely missing in pop culture for some time now; instead, it looks like Paramount, Bad Robot and Netflix tried to make lemonade out of a botched story that wasn’t good enough to release in theatres. The actors, director, and audience deserved better.