In 2016, “10 Cloverfield Lane” marked the return to the world of 2008’s J. J. Abrams-produced, found-footage monster movie, “Cloverfield.” “10 Cloverfield Lane” was a surprise by all accounts — its first trailer dropped a mere three months before the film’s theatrical release. Even more surprising was the fact that it was far better than its predecessor.
Now Julius Onah’s “The Cloverfield Paradox” doubles down on the franchise’s predilection for surprises, with Netflix announcing the film during the Super Bowl; it became available for streaming immediately after the game. Yet the biggest shock of this third entry isn’t its lack of a theatrical run, but rather that a theater setting would merely render the bad movie marginally better. Ultimately, it’s astounding how much “The Cloverfield Paradox” wastes its own potential.
The film follows a crew of scientists working in a satellite station to solve the world’s energy crisis. Their solution is simply to fire up a particle accelerator in space, cross their fingers and hope for the best. However, we’re told — in the most boring way imaginable, by a CNN ripoff — that such an experiment might rip space and time to shreds. Resultantly, unimaginable chaos, including monsters from other dimensions, is invited onto the station and into our universe.
The premise recalls the 1997 sci-fi horror film “Event Horizon,” but despite the film’s liberal borrowing, the core conceit remains fascinating, permitting limitless possibilities for crafting thrills. Anything can seemingly happen to our band of scientists.
Yet the best that screenwriter Oren Uziel and collaborator Doug Jung can muster is a watered-down recreation of the chestburster scene from “Alien.” But instead of fanged phallic symbols, garden worms are used to be less “scary.” Within this realm of pseudo-thrills is a sentient severed arm, though it elicits far fewer scares than it does groans. We expect “The Exorcist,” but we get “Scary Movie 5” instead.
All of this would be forgivable if “The Cloverfield Paradox” derived its thrills psychologically, a la “10 Cloverfield Lane,” rather than from the outright horror it vainly attempts. This film attempts to sow seeds of paranoid distrust among the crew of scientists, but it quickly abandons this plot thread as a third-party villain emerges, quite literally, from nowhere. And no, it’s not the Cloverfield monster.
Would it be too much to ask for the titular beast have a larger role than a brief cameo? Sure, neither “10 Cloverfield Lane” nor “The Cloverfield Paradox” were written to be entries in the franchise — both were originally stand-alone sci-fi films. Regardless, in the former film, monsters still posed a significant threat to its main characters, even if by proxy via nuclear fallout.
In contrast, “The Cloverfield Paradox” completely separates its main characters from the eponymous creature, frustratingly creating an air of relative safety. And in a further break from its predecessor, it becomes increasingly obvious — especially in its last shot — that this film was never meant to be a “Cloverfield” sequel. This film’s story is thus rendered thoroughly inert — it fails as a sci-fi horror film, stumbles as a psychological thriller and outright refuses to be a monster movie.
If “The Cloverfield Paradox” succeeds on any level, it would be in its diverse casting in a genre that’s frustratingly white. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and David Oyelowo do their best with what they’re given, and some of the film’s more admirable set pieces suggest that director Onah deserves a better story to helm.
Woman of color-led, sci-fi thriller released worldwide day + date w/ big Netflix muscle for black director, his super producer + POC cast. No advance press, ads, trailer. Straight to the people. Gamechanger. Congrats to helmer #JuliusOnah + my dears JJ, Gugu, David. #Cloverfield pic.twitter.com/m186Hprhqz
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) February 5, 2018
Ultimately, with the fourth “Cloverfield” film — tentatively titled “Overlord,” and following American soldiers in World War II — on its way, one wonders if it is yet another standalone film, lazily repackaged into something recognizable and digestible.
Worse yet, “The Cloverfield Paradox” speaks to an even larger problem facing cinema, as it represents Netflix’s latest original film to be yet another high-profile blunder, following in the footsteps of “War Machine,” and most recently, “Bright.” It doesn’t matter that critics lambasted this film — Netflix earns its revenue through subscribers, not ticket sales. As far as the streaming giant is concerned, its original films don’t even have to be good.
Are we doomed to repeat “The Cloverfield Paradox”? The answer, scarier than anything in the film itself, is “yes.”
“The Cloverfield Paradox” is available to stream on Netflix.