On Sunday night Netflix dropped a marketing bombshell that only Netflix, in its manic effort to distinguish itself from a growing tide of available streaming services, is capable of dropping: an immediate release of a third film in the peculiar if mostly entertaining Cloverfield series and the result is, well, it’s a movie, alright. The thing that made this particular franchise fascinating, if extraordinarily unwieldy is its willingness to turn genre expectations on their ear. The original Cloverfield was a giant monster movie from the perspective of the people who normally get stomped on, by way of found footage, 10 Cloverfield Lane, was a doomsday survival horror that is mostly great except for a terrifically tone deaf finale that I almost admire for its absolute insanity but also hate for exactly the same reasons. The Cloverfield Paradox fails to follow suit, however, being a desperate sort of mish-mash of other, better films without distinguishing itself from them in any way, shape, or form. The resulting content, with its interdimensional gobbledygook, hokey dialogue, and what I can only describe as non-science, is somewhere between a decent episode of Fringe and a terrible episode of The X-Files. But in space.
All of this is, of course, a damn shame for such a robust and talented multi-ethnic cast. Daniel Bruhl is a fine actor who has really yet to step out of the shadow of his role in Inglourious Basterds, David Oyelowo takes a slight if significant step down from playing MLK, portraying the commander of the mission (I think), and hey, look, Zhang Zhiyi hasn’t aged a single damn day since she starred in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon around 18 years ago. Chris O’Dowd shows up to provide some comedic relief being a representative of the scientific community of…. Ireland, which as we all know is right up there alongside the other UN Security Member nations. There is also a Brazilian crew member I do not know who, for every single line of dialogue has at least five instances of quietly staring confusedly at things, much in the same way I stared at my television screen for nigh two hours. But the apparent star of the show is Black Mirror actress and real talent Gugu Mbatha-Raw, playing a conflicted scientist who left behind her SO in order to travel to space to do science. As often as the plot refocuses and re-centers around different dangers and mysteries, it’s her story that the audience keeps coming back to and as hard as she is trying, it’s difficult to relate much to her character. As much fun is I’ll have with the cast as a whole, it really is clear that everyone is pulling has hard as they can to make this a tense, exciting thriller but the problems with The Cloverfield Paradox are two fold: the writing and the directing, as neither seems to understand exactly which direction to be pulling in or, fundamentally, why.
For a series of films that have done such an exceptional job at being both more than they appear and near perfect examples of the genres that they are parroting, it’s remarkable how far the third in this franchise strays from what the previous two did so well. The game plan seems pretty clear from the outset: take the ensemble cast, grounded physics, and doomsday scenario of a far superior Sunshine and cross it with the atmosphere and paranoia of the original Alien. Add one inexplicably psychotic Russian scientist and then let it all ride. And while it seems hard to go wrong with this strategy it most certainly and plainly does, starting specifically with a random cameo by the fantastic and criminally underrated Donal Logue, who pipes in with a short monologue that is somehow supposed to explain away all the nonsensical plot twists as well as, I don’t know, the cogent, animated, bloodless, body parts that have important plot-advancing knowledge to share. I hope you felt as stupid reading that sentence as I did writing it, such is the cost of experiencing this particular movie. As much as I object to the method, I’ll admit there is some value as a storytelling device in building mystery upon mystery, like Lost or The Leftovers. I consider it a lazy technique but it undeniably adds suspense and intrigue to the world-building in much the same way dipping pizza in ranch adds flavor and deliciousness but they should, ultimately, both come with a healthy amount of shame and dishonor to one’s family name. However,The Cloverfield Paradox literally opens up that Mystery Box with that one speech and treats it like a blank check to advance its narrative, and I use that word very, very, irresponsibly, without really ever explaining why what’s happening is happening.
You’ll notice I have neither added a spoiler warning nor attempted to couch the plot in any criticisms and there’s a good reason for that: I’m not exactly sure what the movie itself was about. There’s a particle accelerator in space. An energy crisis. And like any good scientists doing science, they really seem to have no idea what the end result of switching that baby on is going to be, which I believe is the secret, hidden fourth step of The Scientific Method, right before ‘cross fingers and hope the thingy doesn’t open an interdimensional rift into Hell‘. In retrospect, I really have to hand it to the Netflix marketing team for knowing exactly how to release this well produced and visually arresting mess of a film during the one period of time that a majority of its American audiences are guaranteed to find its plot contrivances and gaping holes in logic reasonable and somehow entertaining and that is immediately after the Super Bowl when we’re all drunk. It’s experiences like The Cloverfield Paradox, and Bright, and initially, when I finished the atrociously self-indulgent original series The OA, that I realized that Netflix, with their mostly hands-off approach to creators and filmmakers, are pioneering a new era of television where I am actually starting to truly understand the necessity of studio and producer notes. Some of these writers and directors, however talented they might be, really do need to be reigned in at some point, to be told, “HA, that’s great, but, you know, terrible.” The result is essentially those children that go to progressive, non-traditional schools that don’t believe in discipline or grading systems or any structure whatsoever. Sure, little Shiloh might be an exceptional and accomplished painter with a great eye for color but he’s 12 years old and still pulls his pants and underwear all the way down to his ankles to pee. Also, he steals things.
My final point is that there is a good movie somewhere buried deep, and I mean deep, inside The Cloverfield Paradox and it’s a shame that it will never see the light of day. Is it worth a watch? Sure. Not sober by any means, but sure. It’s my hope that Netflix, with its war-chest still brimming, will keep making bold decisions like this and continue to refine their product to the point where they don’t feel the need to spam us with mediocre content. Ultimately, I am glad I sat down with it so that I can no longer think about this franchise or its mysteries again. Also if you’re wondering, yes, there is a sort of twist at the end that implies a continuation of the series and while I’ll not spoil that here, I will describe it paraphrasing the words of the always great and inimitable Lewis Black, “It was like going into use the bathroom and when you pressed flush the water just comes shooting out and hits you in the face. And when you turn to leave there’s a sign on the inside of the door that says, ‘Caution: Water Will Shoot Out And Hit You In the Face.'”
The Cloverfield Paradox is now available for streaming on Netflix (*donk donk*).