Why The Cloverfield Paradox Doesn’t Work

I’m going to be straight with you here: I’m a sucker for a gimmick.

It’s one of the reasons that the original Cloverfield and it’s sequel, 10 Cloverfield Lane, so much. The first promised a classic monster movie dressed up in found footage and boasting an engaging and intriguing internet marketing campaign to boot. Lane scored a great cast and let the monster invasion form a backdrop for a high-tension claustrophobic tale of terror. The Cloverfield Paradox…

As I wrote about recently, I’m a huge fool for any kind of internet rabbit hole that promises to let me ignore my responsibilities and learn about a fake soda company for days on end, and that is what  attracted me to the Cloverfield franchise in the first place. But more than that, both previous films in the now-trilogy are decent flicks in their own rights; in fact, 10 Cloverfield Lane was one of my favourite movies of 2016, and I still stand by the original Cloverfield as finding a sweet spot between monster movie and found footage that rendered it a reasonably original version of both genres.

So when I saw that Netflix had dropped the newest movie, The Cloverfield Paradox, while I was asleep, I gamely (well, ish) rolled out of bed at six in the morning to watch it, tart for gimmicks that I am. With a trailer released just two hours before the movie hit the streaming service, there was next to no time for hype around the movie to build, with people invited to simply sit back, watch, and make their own minds up about the movie outside any pre-release reviews or trailer analyses. And that’s exactly what I did.

And, oh, man, I really wanted to like this movie. It’s got a cast packed full of actors I always want to see in more stuff (David Oyelowo, Daniel Bruhl, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris O’Dowd), and the concept is a decent sci-fi “what-if” jumping off point – the crew of a ship attempting to do some science things (look, I’m a film reviewer, not a test-tube expert) and create unlimited energy for a stricken Earth wind up jumping into another dimension and must deal with the twisted reality they’ve found.

And, in all fairness, it’s not like this premise is a complete write-off. Director Julius Onah does well with those “oh, fuck” moments, delivering some decent jump scares and moments of winding tension – the production design is lavish and lush, and the performances are committed even when the script isn’t. Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Ava, the ostensible lead, manages to eke some genuine pathos out of her role as a mourning mother, while her husband left back on Earth (played by Roger Davis) is maybe my favourite performance of the movie, as our only major character on Earth facing the results of the paradox, even if he is left grossly underserved by a plot whose apathy would be understated with the term “hand-wave”. Chris O’Dowd as the gallows-humour comic relief is tried-and-true but it works here, and a wary, unreadable Debicki works well too.

But this movie is also a prime example of what happens when you forget what made a franchise great in the first place. And I’m not saying that Paradox should have been a straight monster movie in the vein of the first one (though don’t get me wrong, I would have watched the shit out of that too). No, what I’m saying is that this movie forgot that would made the original Cloverfield such a success was it’s innovate approach to a well-worn genre. You take the ground-level, found-footage frippery off the first Cloverfield movie and it’s not actually super-interesting (at least to me). While the second film wasn’t innovatively made, it did present a fantastic story with great performances and used the notions put forward in Cloverfield as a backdrop to tell that story. One film had a brand new take on a genre, another had a damn good story and characters, and both times the dense backstory and mythos is secondary to the precise story they’re telling – Paradox puts it front and centre and that, for me, is where it falls apart.

Well, actually, it falls apart in the third act when it tries to lean in to Ava’s story for emotional climax that the actual story can’t deliver us but hasn’t invested enough time or effort into her to make it work, but that’s not what I want to talk about. This is perhaps the film that offers the most definitive answer as to what the monsters in Cloverfield are and where they came from, questions that fans have been gnashing at the bit with guesses at the decade since the first. It answers a few questions about the Cloverfield-verse but answering those questions seems to be the point of the story – I may just speak for myself here, but there’s something about engaging with the fanbase surrounding deliberately ambiguous and dense movie worlds like this one that I enjoy, about theorizing on what could be going on, on teasing out the truth from the little clues we’ve been given over the course of the movies. The double-whammy of removing some of that enticing ambiguity of the universe while still failing to deliver something compelling and engaging in it’s own right renders Paradox a failure on both fronts.

As someone who’s a fan of the extended Cloverfield world, I guess some part of me is pleased to know a little more about the monsters and the way the three films connect, but I would have been happier walking away from a more original movie with less questions answered than I was watching the credits roll for this unoriginal, over-explained mess. The Cloverfield Paradox goes a long way to stripping away what I love so much about the Cloverfield universe and doesn’t even stand well as a story outside of it’s predecessors. And for that, it’s a hardcore thumbs-down from me.

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