Um……what? No seriously………WHAT?
There’s obviously going to be some air of mystery surrounding the sudden arrival of The Cloverfield Paradox, the third installment of the very loosely tied together Cloverfield universe. While 2008’s Cloverfield and its pseudo-sequel 10 Cloverfield Lane in 2016 had rather hushed and rushed promotional rollouts, The Cloverfield Paradox is damn near game-changing as it was announced in a TV ad during Sunday night’s Super Bowl 52 and premiering mere minutes after the game ended. So sure, the unknown is the bread and butter of Cloverfield. But just because mystery gets audiences into the theater (or in this case, signed up for a Netflix subscription), it doesn’t mean that’s all a movie can rely on for over 100 minutes.
The Cloverfield Paradox takes place around the same time as the monster/alien invasion of Cloverfield, only the story is a little more far out than the one in New York City. On a space station just outside the Earth’s atmosphere, six astronauts from all over the world have spent over 600 days trying to use a particle accelerator to create sustainable energy for the planet. They finally manage to get a stable beam of energy, but a malfunction causes the station to short circuit and throw the crew for a loop. The crew then notices things are strange on board: the technology is acting funny, the crew seems more paranoid, and more importantly, they can’t see Earth anymore.
What has made the Cloverfield movies interesting so far are the little details of how they’re all connected, but are not necessarily sequels. The focus is on the story and characters in front of you, not the cinematic universe in the background. Here’s the thing though: a movie still needs a coherent story, and Oren Uziel (22 Jump Street, Shimmer Lake) and Doug Jung (Star Trek Beyond) did not bring one. Despite the movie’s simple core premise (being lost in space), the script lifts elements from the likes of not only Alien but even its clones, like Event Horizon and Pandorum. And what’s borderline infuriating about the movie are the space shenanigans…yes, space shenanigans. Random bits of body horror, haunted house-inspired tricks: character face-offs and jump scares whip around corners of the movie with little to no explanation as to how it happened, why it’s happening, and what it even is. Thrillers and horror movies do have shocking things to keep the mystery going and catch the audience off guard, which is fine. But there needs to be at least some kind of hint beforehand or explanation after to show how this was set up and why it happened. And it happens so frequently to motivate the movie’s action that it becomes distracting.
It’s very unfortunate, because on a technical level, The Cloverfield Paradox is rock solid. Director Julius Onah (The Girl Is in Trouble) does a first-rate job with his first big-budget sci-fi movie by emphasizing the dread inherent in the vast emptiness of space and the claustrophobia of being trapped on the station. He wisely avoids any unnecessary shaky cam tricks to heighten drama and knows how to maneuver between the nooks and crannies of the well-designed environmen. It’s actually impressive how much this looks like a J.J. Abrams movie (he produced the first two and this installment with original Cloverfield director Matt Reeves) without Abrams’s indulgences in lens flare. This looks like something made for movie theaters, if not for the surprise roll out on Netflix (sorry Paramount) to garner big press. And Onah works with one hell of a cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw is surely the heart and soul of the movie, as she’s given the most emotional depth to work with throughout. She’s joined by stern dramatists like David Oyelowo, Ziyi Zhang and Daniel Brühl, along with other character actors like John Ortiz and Chris O’Dowd (a slightly effective comic relief). Despite being given nonsense to work with, everyone in front of the camera is trying their best to push through this trite funhouse in space.
The Cloverfield Paradox has the same problem as a whole that rappers like Future or Gucci Mane have when they drop surprise mixtapes: just because it’s sudden and unexpected doesn’t mean it’s exempt from having substance to it. The movie’s viral marketing may be a success, but it’s a failure of a functioning film with nonsense driving it forward and no strong characters or action to hold it together. A new take on making movies big events again, especially in the streaming era, is a bold and necessary thing to do. Just don’t leave the ever-important parts of craft and creativity behind along the way.