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Non-Review Review: The Cloverfield Paradox

The Cloverfield Paradox is important. It’s just not very good.

The Cloverfield Paradox is a movie that seems destined to be overshadowed by the circumstances of its release. The Cloverfield Paradadox is one of several films that Netflix harvested from the increasingly beleaguered Paramount Pictures. Netflix will be handling the international distribution of Annihilation and picked up The Irishman when Paramount backed out. However, The Cloverfield Paradox remains one of the strangest fruits of this bitter harvest, in large part because of its pedigree, its production and its release.

It ain’t Clover ’til it’s Clover…

As the title implies, The Cloverfield Paradox is part of the shared universe of JJ Abrams films including Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane. Both were films that cleverly snuck up on audiences, and both were films that performed well for Paramount. As such, Paramount’s decision to sell off The Cloverfield Paradox seems strange – this is one of the company’s few successful properties, and there is even a fourth movie in the pipeline still aiming for a theatrical release. It seems a strange choice for Paramount to offload on Netflix.

Then again, the film’s production was notoriously troubled. The film was originally titled “The God Particle” before being changed to “Cloverfield Station” before finally being released as “The Cloverfield Paradox.” While the finished film looks impressive and has a top-notch cast, watching it is an incredibly disjointed experience. There is a sense that The Cloverfield Paradox has not been edited so much as filleted, that the audience is watching the leftover elements of a film that have been assembled from leftovers after the connecting tissue has been scraped from the bone.

Admiring the handiwork.

However, all of this is overshadowed by the circumstances of the film’s release, with Netflix finallising the deal to purchase The Cloverfield Paradox in late January, reportedly paying over $50m for it, and releasing it directly following the Super Bowl. There were no critics’ screenings, no advanced hype. There were simply two television spots promising viewers that they could watch the film on Netflix “after the game.” This was a brutally effective piece of marketting from Netflix, using the film to create a “disruption” to the established pattern of major movie releases.

This was an uncanny move, because all of the surrounding hype around this “event” glosses over the fact that The Cloverfield Paradox is just a new sheen on a familiar cliché. It is a “direct to video” film elevated to a seismic pop cultural phenomenon. And it is not even a good “direct to video” film.

Station-keeping.

It is next to impossible to discuss The Cloverfield Paradox without discussing the circumstances of its release. This is incredibly clever marketing from Netflix, because it means the actual discussions around The Cloverfield Paradox are helpfully insulated from the fundamental question of whether or not it is a good film. By making it an event and curiousity, Netflix cannily shifts the discussion of the film to thinkpieces about new release models and the changing face of cinema, helpfully sidestepping the fact that The Cloverfield Paradox is not very good at all.

Of course, the answer is almost self-evident. Netflix would never release a good movie in this manner, or at least not a movie that had the potential to attract good word of mouth. Netflix screened Okja at Cannes. It sends out screeners for First They Killed My Father. It aggressively pursued Oscar glory with Mudbound. It invited critics to sing about Beasts of No Nation from the rooftops. It will certainly screen Mute for critics. Indeed, this is the company that screened Iron Fist for critics. If The Cloverfield Paradox would attract positive critical attention, Netflix would court that attention.

No space to develop.

It should also be noted that while “direct to video” is an apt descriptor of the release process of The Cloverfield Paradox, it is unfair to use the term as a shorthand for lack of quality. Indeed, some of the best action-movie filmmaking in the world is going “direct to video”, with directors and stuntmen making the kind of films that have largely been squeezed out of the market place by computer-generated imagery. John Hyam’s work on Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning stands out as demonstrable proof of this “direct to video” renaissance.

However, The Cloverfield Paradox is a bad movie, no matter how cannily it might be marketed and what potential distribution revolution that it might herald. The Cloverfield Paradox often feels like a grab-bag of science-fiction horror movie clichés stung together to fill an hour and forty minutes of screen-time racing towards an incredibly obvious final twist. The Cloverfield Paradox evokes all manner of familiar science-fiction storytelling, from Alien to Outland to Event Horizon to Sunshine to Life. However, it never finds a plausible way to thread all of this together.

“It turns out that you can also get movie channels on this thing.”

The Cloverfield Paradox is crammed full of the kind of story beats that you expect in a narrative like this: the lead who works in space isolated from her family, the tension between people locked in a cramped box together for months on end, a strange and possibly murderous doppelganger, obligatory space suit sequences, the heartbreaking sacrifice of a major character to close a door, repeated explosive decompression, a sequence in which a major character discovers something crawling under their skin.

The Cloverfield Paradox is set on a space station that seems to find itself caught between the colliding dimensions of a vast and uncaring multiverse – people and things frequently dislocated in time and in space, duplicated and divided, characters swallowed by walls and eaten from the inside by displaced objects. This often seems like a metaphor for the film itself, The Cloverfield Paradox effectively a point of collision for ideas and imagery from a variety of much better science-fiction horror thrillers without any bridging context.

“Can we have a sequence where the station spins out of control, like Interstellar?”
“I’m sure we can fit it in.”

Some of the lifts are so direct that they border on plagiarism. One crew member discovers something wriggling under his skin, studying his face (and particularly his eyes) in the mirror in a manner that recalls a key scene from Prometheus. Later on, a crew member who should not be on board the ship embarks upon a murderous (and psychotic) rampage against perceived intruders, evoking the third act of Sunshine. The level of core on display, and design of a strange artifact pulled out from a piece of body horror, conjures memories of Event Horizon.

The issue with The Cloverfield Paradox is that it never provides any connective tissue between these horror movie homages, no explanation or no texture. The audience is never offered a cursory explanation for why any of these things are happening, beyond some vague techno-babble about the walls of reality collapsing as various universes fold in on themselves. “Logic doesn’t apply here!” insists one crew member. Another assesses the situation and very simply summarises, “I don’t get it.”

Eye, eye, eye!

It is possible to build an effective horror movie without explanation. Indeed, many of the best horror movies thrive on the unexplained and the ambiguous elements of their mythology.There can be something haunting in the surreal and the uncanny, in things that threaten the audience’s fundamental assumptions about how reality is supposed to work. However, most of the best horror films maintain some vague internal logic or thematic consistency that suggests the writers understand what is happening and why, beyond throwing their hands up and saying the laws of physics don’t apply.

The Cloverfield Paradox throws out the laws of physics with its vaguely defined central experiment, obviously intended as a fictionalisation of the Large Hadron Collider. However, the film also throws out the laws of basic biology. Not only does a hand keep moving after it is separated from a body, it moves with clear thought and purpose. A human body is filled with worms, but the character is able to retain enough motor and neural control to slowly realise what is happening. Objects repeatedly behave as if governed by malicious intent, rather than simply governed by alien physics.

The woman who fell to earth.

In some senses, it feels like The Cloverfield Paradox would work a lot better as (and indeed wants to be) a movie about demonic intervention in a seemingly rational setting, evoking Event Horizon. Certainly there are several aspects of the film that hint at a more overtly spiritual subtext – the space station named “Sheperd”, the religious character named “Monk”, the original title of “The God Particle”, the imagery of creepy crawly animals appearing where they should not, establishing shots of snakes, an awkward expository newscast about “monsters! demons!”

It can be difficult to determine what has been cut of a movie before release, particularly one as shrouded in secrecy as The Cloverfield Paradox. Nevertheless, the shape of certain absences suggest an outline, plots and arcs truncated and not removed, dangling suggestions and unpursued avenues. There is a lack of focus in The Cloverfield paradox, with the film throwing out new ideas and concepts at an increasingly frantic pace, but without any attempt to unpack or explore them. It feels like at least some of this is in the edit as much as the source material.

Talk about an overblown reaction.

The Cloverfield Paradox features a phenomenal cast of character actors locked together in a confined space, including: Zhang Zhi, John Ortiz, Daniel Brühl, David Oyelowo, Chris O’Dowd and Elizabeth Debicki. There is no combination of this cast that be unsatisfying, and there are occasional flickers of something resembling chemistry in scenes that certain characters spend together. However, these actors are not playing characters so much as templates: the religious one, the untrustworthy one, the commanding one, the funny one, the mysterious one.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is particularly underutilised in the lead role. Interestingly enough, the strongest thematic throughline connecting The Cloverfield Paradox to Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane has little to do with monsters or demons, and more to do with the central character’s arc. Once again, The Cloverfield Paradox is the story of somebody leaving a person that they care about, only to immediately regret that decisions. However, the emotional core of The Cloverfield Paradox is never developed, never explored in anything beyond crude exposition.

The Cloverfield Paradox is arguably more than a film, positioned as a pop culture event. As a Netflix release, it is a resounding success – the debate and discussion of the film turning what would have been a box office disaster for Paramount into a social media triumph for Netflix. However, for a film about characters who find themselves wandering a vast multiverse, The Cloverfield Paradox makes the viewer yearn for the universe where this was a good movie.

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