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Review: The Cloverfield Paradox

February 5, 2018

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

Last night, Netflix surprised everyone with a Super Bowl spot announcing that they were going to be dropping The Cloverfield Paradox right after the big game.  There was no prior advertising for the film, no critics had seen it yet, and the title wasn’t even confirmed up until that point.  A big sci-fi sequel produced by J.J. Abrams was simply going to be released out of the blue following a major sporting event, with only a few hours lead time.

No matter how you cut it, this was a huge and unprecedented move, especially considering that Paramount was originally set to release the film in theatres on April 20th, before rumours started swirling a few weeks ago that Netflix was in talks to acquire it instead.  The news sent people into a social media tailspin, and I was mostly curious to see how this experiment was going to pan out.

Well, I stayed up late last night to watch The Cloverfield Paradox, and it almost instantly became clear to me why they chose to put it on Netflix.  The film feels more like an extended episode of a TV show than it does a movie, and there’s no way that it would have become the blockbuster it needed to be in order to make its budget back in theatres.  It’s fine, I guess, but not great, and it feels like a letdown after the surprise success of 10 Cloverfield Lane.  The whole thing felt decidedly anticlimactic, and the initial novelty of being able to watch a highly anticipated new movie in the comfort of my own bedroom only a few hours after the release was announced wore off pretty quickly.

The film follows a diverse group of international scientists – Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Kiel (David Oyelowo), Schmidt (Daniel Brühl), Monk (John Ortiz), Mundy (Chris O’Dowd), Volkov (Aksel Hennie) and Tam (Ziyi Zhang) – who have spent hundreds of days aboard the Cloverfield Space Station, and are trying to boot up a particle accelerator that will create a new source of power to solve the energy crisis on Earth.  But when the experiment goes wrong, and our planet disappears from view, they soon start to realize that they accidentally ripped open a portal into an alternate dimension.  Things really start to go bad when a mysterious woman (Elizabeth Debicki) appears onboard, and Hamilton grows increasingly desperate to get home to her husband (Roger Davies).

I’m not going to say more about the plot, because it is best to watch the film completely cold, if you are going to watch it at all.  There is an element of surprise to The Cloverfield Paradox that does make it fairly entertaining to sit through, and there are some decent twists along the way.  The ending is pretty wild, and provides a fun jolt right at the end of the film.  The best thing that can be said about the film is that there is a certain unpredictability to it, especially since it was released in a way that didn’t allow it to be spoiled by countless trailers before audiences even had a chance to see it for themselves.

When The Cloverfield Paradox ended for me in the middle of the night last night, my first reaction was somewhat mixed.  I didn’t hate watching the film while it was on, but also felt somewhat disappointed with the finished product.  It’s a movie that plays just well enough on your TV to pass the time late at night, but it also doesn’t hold up well in the light of day, and it’s easy to scrutinize it the more that you think about it.  We can tell that the film has undergone reshoots and faced shifting release dates.  It feels choppy at times, playing more like a rough cut that is in need of test audiences than an actual finished film, and it’s plagued by problems that are glaringly obvious right from the start.

The characters feel bland and underdeveloped, and the film sort of zips between set-pieces, never diving as deep as it needs to into the actual mechanics of this world.  The film seems intent on delivering a series of shock moments and increasingly loopy twists, a couple of which do land, but it doesn’t have much connective tissue beyond that.  The whole thing feels rushed, like it’s been hacked down from a longer running time, which forces the film to rely on some pretty clunky expositionary dialogue in order to help us understand what the hell is going on.

The stakes are also sometimes lessened by the head-scratching ways that the characters react.  When they first discover that the earth is gone, they initially seem more annoyed that their experiment went wrong, than they do terrified that they just lost the entire frickin’ planet.  When one of the characters loses his arm, he seems far too chill about it, in another one of the film’s most baffling and totally ludicrous moments.  The stuff back on earth feels both frustratingly underdeveloped and like a missed opportunity, showing the planet being disseminated by something that is heavily hinted at to be the monster from the original Cloverfield, while also teasing us by not showing the actual threat.

The surprise release does feel in tune with with the first two films in the franchise.  The first Cloverfield came to theatres in 2008 following a secretive marketing campaign and, for better or for worse, instantly changed the game in terms of found footage movies.  It was a nasty little monster movie that had the element of surprise on its side.  The film got an unexpected followup of sorts with 10 Cloverfield Lane, the existence of which was kept secret until the first trailer dropped in theatres shortly before it was released in 2016.  More of a loosely connected offshoot than an actual sequel, the film was surprisingly great, offering an intense and phenomenally acted chamber piece that unfolded mostly in a bunker with only three characters.

While The Cloverfield Paradox sort of superficially fits into the series, it also feels like J.J. Abrams is trying to build a franchise out of something that was initially intended to be a one-off.  This approach worked for 10 Cloverfield Lane, and it could have worked for this one as well, but the film falls short in this regard.  From what I understand, this was initially intended to be an original science fiction movie called God Particle, before Bad Robot decided to repurpose Oren Uziel’s script into an extension of the “Cloververse.”  But the parts of the film that try to connect it back to the franchise feel a bit forced, and often seem more like an attempt to sell the film as part of a preexisting brand than they do an organic extension of a larger story.

Before I watched the film, it seemed like we were witnessing a watershed moment that would help dissolve the already disappearing line between theatrical and digital releases, and if The Cloverfield Paradox had been great, then it could have been a game changer.  But after watching it, it becomes clear that the release strategy is merely the signs of a distributor playing damage control.  This was the only way for them to release the film without it being overhyped by trailers, only to be eviscerated by critics in the days before its release.  If Paramount had gone with their original plan to release it in theatres, there’s a very real chance that they wouldn’t have even screened it for critics in advance.

Netflix no doubt wants viewers to think that they are delivering something that’s too bold and original for a major studio to risk putting in theatres, but in reality The Cloverfield Paradox has the feel of a subpar straight to DVD sequel, and the producers no doubt chose to release it through a streaming site because they knew that it never would have passed the smell test with paying moviegoers.  But on the other hand, Netflix now has us all talking about a thoroughly mediocre February release, so in that regard their risky strategy has paid off.

The film ended up landing on Netflix because Paramount didn’t want to brunt the costs of marketing it and getting it into theatres, only to have an expensive flop on their hands.  But releasing it in such an unconventional way allowed Netflix to effectively shift some of the conversation away from the quality of the film itself, and instead keep people talking about the way they put it out.  The film itself simply isn’t that great.  It’s mostly bland and forgettable.  But the release strategy is not.  And that’s precisely why they chose to do it this way.

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