A surprising release delivers an unsurprising narrative.
The Cloverfield franchise, since the original film’s announcement trailer, has been built on mystery. The first film and, as producer J.J. Abrams called it, its “blood-relative” sequel 10 Cloverfield Lane, covered distinctly different genre territory while touching on similar themes of survival and the relationships that bind us. The Cloverfield Paradox, surprisingly dropped on Netflix months ahead of its originally anticipated theatrical release, aims to jump into yet another new genre — space-set sci-fi with a dash of horror — but never quite reaches the highs of its predecessors. In an effort to provide some insight into the blood tying these films together, the film paradoxically both stumbles in offering clear answers or thrill as a standalone feature.
The world is in need of energy, badly, and a group of international scientists are sent into space aboard the Cloverfield station to harness the Shepard particle accelerator and provide unlimited energy to Earth. For close to 700 days, the crew fails miserably. On one fateful day, however, they perfect the accelerator, but an overload sends the space station…somewhere, And wherever they are, the Earth has disappeared.
The crew endeavors to return home, but misfortune follows them in Final Destination-style horror as multiple universes seemingly collide. Unfortunately, there’s little surprising about what transpires aboard the ship, or how the assembled crew acts in the face of imminent doom.
Much of the lack of surprise is due to Paradox’s story, which feels culled together from every space set-sci-fi film since Alien and The Thing. Paradox never creatively twists or rises above its inspirations, though, so predictable beats are easy to guess for anyone familiar with the genre.
Paradox executes some of its inspiration well, at the very least, with the elements of body horror particularly work well in the context of Paradox’s central problem. The space station has caused a rift in space, forcing similar parts of different dimensions to occupy the same space. That idea is a fascinating setup, specifically for how it affects Volkov (Aksel Hennie) and for how it plays into the unexpected appearance of a new crew member midway through the film.
Director Julius Onah captures some of the body horror related to this idea. A gnarly pain in a character’s eye or the materialization of a person inside the machinery of the station are nasty and effective side effects of this dimension smashing. But it disperses with these fascinating elements in favor of run-of-the-mill plot beats and character choices, often shot as dutch angles of characters running down the same couple of hallways every time.
Some of the more absurd moments would play better if the film never left Paradox’s space station. 10 Cloverfield Lane maintained tension by not leaving its core setting, but Paradox occasionally heads back to Earth. There, the world is under siege by something that will look quite familiar to Cloverfield fans. These scenes, told from the point of view of one of the space station member’s significant others, distract more than add to the story. They feel included to offer winks and nods to Cloverfield fans but not to tell a compelling, concurrent story.
And speaking of the mythology, I’ve long been a fan of the off-screen world building done in each Cloverfield’s alternate reality game. It helps to make these “blood relatives” seem part of an intentioned grand plan, even if each subsequent film has been a standalone movie transformed into a Cloverfield entry. Oddly enough, a scene early in the film featuring an author, who appeared in the Paradox ARG, claims what the space station is doing may open rifts in time and space, unleashing monsters. It’s such pandering fan service (though still a fun cameo from Donal Logue) that I almost felt let down that my theories and ideas would be addressed so blatantly. There are moments of that fan service I’ll happily admit to enjoying, but they don’t make up for the film’s missteps.
Even if Cloverfield Paradox’s plot is expected, there’s hope in its ensemble cast of great actors — Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Daniel Bruhl, David Oyelowo, and more — to at least bring heart to the predictability. They are…a mixed bag. As written, the international crew serve as Clichéd Ensemble 101. You’ve got the comic relief in Chris O’Dowd’s Mundy, the leader who hides his emotions for the good of his crew in Oyelowo’s Kiel, the German scientist Schmidt (Bruhl) some are mistrustful of, and so on. Some, like O’Dowd, lean into what little they’re given and make it work, but others, like Oyelowo, are completely underutilized. With Kiel, his choices that should be hefty with meaning often come off as superfluous because we’re given so little time to learn about him.
The only character truly spared this fate is Mbatha-Raw’s Ava Hamilton. We see her decision to join this unique mission, her relationship with her husband Michael on Earth, and learn about her tragic past. Her motivations and subsequent decisions feel earned and understandable, even if I didn’t always agree with them. The emotional through line of the film, Ava’s development is starkly in contrast to a crew of characters who often act more in service to the plot than to themselves.
And yet, I undoubtedly enjoyed watching The Cloverfield Paradox at many points along the way. I loved the early ideas presented of a multiverse colliding with itself, which leads to some truly horrific and twisted moments. But those ideas quickly give way to a more pedestrian race against time, and fate, that never quite satisfies as its own story.