Amidst the colliding bodies and celebrity advertisements of the Super Bowl, Netflix released a teaser for the long rumoured third entry in the Cloverfield series. Not only was The Cloverfield Paradox being released straight onto the streaming giant — it would be available straight after the game. Praise at the ingenuity of the immediate release spread across the internet. It was cool and novel and could signal a major shift in the film industry. Then people watched it. And it swiftly became apparent that Julius Onah’s The Cloverfield Paradox is an incoherent and derivative sci-fi B movie full of hollow characters that do dumb things to serve the needs of the script, which appears to have been taken from the recycling bin of a USC lecture hall.
To fix the energy crisis on Earth which is apparently, without access to wind, water or the sun, a team is sent to space to build a particle accelerator and save the planet. The Cloverfield International Space Station crew is made up of Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Kiel (David Oyelewo), Schmidt (Daniel Brühl), Volkov (Aksel Hennie), Monk (John Ortiz), Mundy (Chris O’Dowd) and Tam (Ziyi Zhang). They have been in orbit for 679 days and time is running out, so they rush another attempt to complete “the Shepard” accelerator. In doing so they make the Earth “disappear”, supernatural things start to occur, and Elizabeth Debicki’s Jensen turns up inside a wall in her best impression of the Basilisk from Harry Potter. While all this is happening, Hamilton’s husband, Michael (Roger Davies) sits at his computer in his well-lighted room trying to survive the energy crisis and hide from monsters.
You can almost see the wet glue where the Cloverfield brand has been pasted over the story. Donal Logue appears in close-up on a TV screen explaining “the Cloverfield paradox” that risks “shattering reality” and unleashing “monsters and demons”. Likewise, the Cloverfield name on the Space Station attempts a clumsy connection to previous films. And that’s simply what The Cloverfield Paradox is. A tenuous attempt to craft a bad sci-fi movie into a prequel that explains what happened before the events of the original Cloverfield. Just like 10 Cloverfield Lane (a much better film), the monsters and aliens feel like an afterthought added to a separate movie.
What results is a movie where scientists race around a ship explaining what they are doing, what they just did, and what they are about to do, while bad things happen. It has the feeling of a Black Mirror episode set on the ship of last years’ Life, without the efficient execution of either. Life worked because it was simple: there’s an alien trying to kill everyone and they need to stop its escape. The Cloverfield Paradox doesn’t, because Onah moves from disaster to disaster with no motivation or explanation; there’s not even a villain to root against (or for), and the most gruesome accidents are shrugged off as inescapable consequences of the leap to a parallel dimension.
One example of this is when Mundy’s arm is engulfed by a bio-organic wall. It is torn off above the elbow, perfectly cauterised. Moments later his severed arm crawls down the corridor and the crew imprisons it. The independent arm then asks for a pen and writes down a vital message that propels the plot forward. All of this is shrugged off as a byproduct of that pesky “multiverse”. Ridiculous occurrences like this continue in various incarnations throughout the film. Viewers have no choice but to wait for characters to die off and hope for a convincing solution that never comes.
All of this may have somehow been salvaged with interesting characters. They’re not. Instead, they are imbued with about as much personality as a video game character from the ’90s; complete with character-defining accents and national flags sewn on their shoulders. It is a shame, because the cast — Ayelowo, Brühl, O’Dowd — are talented. But here, especially with the dialogue’s contrived exposition, they don’t have much to work with. Show me someone who could pull off saying, “Earth disappears, station does not feel the same, a woman appears in the wall, we’re definitely not in Kentucky anymore” without sounding like Tommy Wiseau. Mbatha-Raw’s Hamilton is given the most to do and she tries valiantly as the only character with a remotely interesting arc. She is credited in three more films this year and I look forward to seeing more of her on the big screen.
The Cloverfield Paradox’s release was a refreshing idea. It got people thinking about new ways to deliver movie experiences and that can only be a good thing. The film itself is bad — nowhere near the quality of Cloverfield or 10 Cloverfield Lane. Were it released without its viral marketing and in its original title, The God Particle, it’s the kind of movie you and your partner resign yourselves to after scrolling through the app for half an hour. In other words, it’s just another bad Netflix movie.