If anyone remembers anything about The Cloverfield Paradox 10 years from now, it will be the manner in which it was dropped, completely unexpectedly, on Netflix following the Super Bowl with a single trailer during the game announcing its existence and imminent release. The stealth campaign kept with the previous two films in the J.J. Abrams-produced franchise-the shakycam marauding monster mash Cloverfield (2008) and the elegantly claustrophobic maybe-it's-the-apocalypse thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)-both of which seemed to emerge out of nowhere, fully formed and ready to go. In an age in which the entertainment media tracks the development of every major film project in minute detail, getting three major motion pictures produced largely under the radar is an accomplishment in and of itself.
Unfortunately, its surprise release is the most interesting thing about The Cloverfield Paradox, which takes place almost entirely aboard an international space station sometime in the near distant future. It's not a bad film by any means-in fact, parts of it are quite intense and suspenseful and surprising-but the parts never really add up to anything weighty or memorable, partially because it revolves around one of those convoluted multiple-dimension plots that will give anyone trying to sort out the details a serious headache. It's best to just go with the flow.
Part of going with that flow is accepting the film as part of the Cloverfield universe, which at this point is a stitched-together Frankenstein's monster created out of otherwise unrelated scripts that have been tailored to create the illusion of connection. They all have in common some kind of monstrous or alien invasion, all of which are perhaps somehow related, or maybe it's all just a big meta in-joke to see how far the most dedicated viewers will strain to connect the dots. The script by Oren Uziel (22 Jump Street, Shimmer Lake), from a story he concocted with Doug Jung (Star Trek: Beyond), was originally meant to be a stand-alone project unrelated to the franchise, but a few nips and tucks and a renaming of the film's space station to Cloverfield made it part of the larger game, whatever that game may be.
Lacking any definitive understanding of how the pieces fit together (or if they ever will at all), we are left with the film itself, which is a passable science fiction thriller with some intriguing, although never fully developed ideas. The space station is testing a new particle accelerator that could potentially create an unlimited source of power for Earth, which has drained most of its resources and is on the brink of collapse. Thus, humanity's survival literally hinges on their success, which is why the protagonist, Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), is willing to leave her husband (Roger Davies) behind for what she thinks will be a few months, but turns out to be a few years. She works with a multicultural/multinational crew of scientists played by Daniel Brhl, Ziyi Zhang David Oyelowo, Chris O'Dowd, John Ortiz, and Aksel Hennie, all of whom are feeling the pressure. When they finally get the particle accelerator to work, it overloads and they accidentally punch a hole in the space-time continuum that lands them in an alternate reality, the existence of which they first realize when the Earth itself seems to have suddenly vanished and they discover a woman named Jensen (Elizabeth Debicki) inexplicably trapped inside the wall of the space station, her body punctured with the tubes and cables within. And it only gets weirder from there as we go spiraling down the multiverse rabbit hole.
Nigerian-born director Julius Onah is like Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) and Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) before him, a relatively untested entity; his only feature, 2015's crime thriller The Girl Is in Trouble, was made when he was a graduate student at NYU. He acquits himself well, generating some good tension and suspense and keeping the film visually lively despite the limited confines of the space station (there are also some odd bits of comedy, including a character's arm that becomes separated from his body and takes on a life of its own). He has to drag out some of the predictable character conflicts to keep things moving along, but in the end the story with which he's working is simply not that compelling. It feels like an assemblage of parts from other, better sci-fi stories, and while the strong roster of character actors gives it their all, they're mostly stuck playing familiar types (the stressed-out lead scientist, the shifty Russian, etc.). Perhaps it will someday be revealed how The Cloverfield Paradox fits into a grander, greater narrative, but for now it will mainly be thought of as that movie that dropped right after the Super Bowl.
Copyright 2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright Netflix
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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