The Cloverfield Paradox
As soon as the rumour broke that Paramount might be selling God Particle, or Cloverfield Station, to Netflix, entirely bypassing a cinema release, speculation ran rampant that they had a turkey on their hands and wished to palm it off. After all, this came off the back of reshoots and shifts in release dates. So when confirmation came, in something of a publicity coup, that it would touch down on the same day as its trailer, there was an understandable buzz of anticipation; this was exactly the kind of rug-pull surprise the movie series had previously done so well. Alas, the conversation quickly returned to turkey talk.
The Cloverfield Paradox isn’t a patch on the previous two entries – particularly 2016’s entry – and its insertion of the Cloverfield branding is particularly inelegant, but it’s an actually an agreeable enough ride for the first hour, before revealing it has nowhere interesting to go with its not really all that distinctive alt-universe premise.
Indeed, one is continually aware of how derivative The Cloverfield Paradox is, in much the same way Leviathan was derivative of a decade’s worth of Alien rip-offs. This has some of that in its DNA, and with a space station setting, manages to suggest the disaster-movie events of Gravity, as well as last year’s (superior) Life, complete with a “shock” monster ending. Although, Life had a quality shock monster ending, and benefited, in relative terms, from limited remit and trajectory.
In contrast, the conceptual sky’s the limit in The Cloverfield Paradox, weirdness-wise, such that you can only be left disappointed when it eschews its potential and settles for a rather pedestrian race against time and previously unrevealed villainy in the third act. In that respect, it most resembles Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, another picture with a “last, best hope” space mission. And, while I wouldn’t wish turning into Event Horizon on any movie, the glimmers of more uncertain tangents and developments early in the proceedings suggest a far more engrossing physics- and reality-warping tale than the one we get.
If the shoehorned-in elements aren’t terribly convincing, the outlined setup also takes some chewing on. We’re asked to believe that by 2028 – or almost two years after, depending on whether that date’s the beginning of the movie or when shit on the station starts going down – the world will be facing a five-year countdown to the complete exhaustion of its energy resources (I guess there’s no wind or sunlight left); perhaps Oren Uziel and Doug Jung were inspired by Bowie’s Five Years to almost as ineffectual results as Neil Cross’ Hard Sun. Everything rides on the space-borne Shepard particle accelerator to strike it lucky with free energy for all (where the Hadron Collider is in all this is anyone’s guess).
Curiously, while the movie sets itself up as a cautionary tale of the dangers of messing with science – whatever is going on at CERN, I’m sure it’s worth every cent of that $13bn+, complete with complementary staged human sacrifices – the free energy side is a success. Eventually. Only, it also brings in the humungous nasties that plague the other two Cloverfield movies (presumably the guys at Bad Robot were fired up by CERN conspiracy theories and how they might dovetail with the Cloverfield franchise, as one of the major ones has scientists using it to open portals to other dimensions, with the purpose of bringing through demonic entities). So I guess, on balance, it would have been better to take our chances with a permanent power outage.
This energy drought has – ahem – fuelled tensions between power blocs (“Russia’s threatening ground invasion now” – those guys just can’t catch a break as far as Hollywood goes, can they? Altercations are duly sparked on the station between the Russian and German representatives, as “Germany’s preparing for war”).
Much of the information on what’s going on down below comes via Michael (Roger Davies), boyfriend of mission scientist Ava (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). To give Davies the benefit of the doubt, Michael is such crumby character that I can’t really blame the actor for being hopelessly unconvincing. He’s stuck shouldering the entirely redundant Earth-side plot, and I’d be surprised if it wasn’t part of the too hastily written and cobbled together reshoots, designed to add tentative substance to the Cloverfield element.
These kinds of stories tend to work better when you don’t have the release of defusing the claustrophobia of the base or station, and you don’t know how bad or worse things are back home. Continually returning to Earth, where something nasty is stomping about the place, with Michael rescuing a girl and seeking shelter in a fallout bunker, breaks the tension in exactly the wrong way (the girl seems to be visually referenced as a younger version of Elizabeth Debicki’s alt-Earth Jensen; possibly the movie’s nod to the Mandela Effect? We’d need a clip from Moonraker where the girl does in fact have braces on her teeth, or Star Wars with both C-3P0’s legs painted gold, to be certain).
Mark Stambler: This experiment could unleash chaos, the likes of which we’ve never seen: monsters, demons, beasts from the sea. And not just here and now. In the past, in the future, in other dimensions.
To helpfully – or annoyingly – link all this to Cloverfield in verbalised fashion, there’s an alarmingly shameless exposition dump early on from Mark Stambler (Donal Logue), author of The Cloverfield Paradox, warning “Those who’ve accepted the Cloverfield Paradox is real know how dangerous that is. Every time they test it, they risk ripping open the membrane of space-time, shattering reality” and the bit about monsters, etc. This does, to be fair, retcon a fairly wide remit for the kind of stories the Cloverfield anthology series can tell; it’s just a shame it’s been partnered with such an ultimately disappointing story.
Initially, though, things look quite promising. It’s revealed that starting up the particle accelerator caused the station to jump to a parallel universe with another Earth, representing the main workings of the contradictory and baffling events suggested by the title. This is an Earth where the situation is even worse – there’s a fourteen-month-old European war with no sign of resolution – and characters are consequently more ruthless (it’s like the Star Trek mirror universe, or Fringe’s parallel Earth, only less fun). Although, I was confused by Jensen’s statement that “you erased my crew from existence”. Since they appeared on the other side of the Sun, and learn that Cloverfield Station there was destroyed and fell to Earth, how exactly did they effect this (I know: it’s a paradox! That answers everything!)?
While all this is going on, the picture is perfectly serviceable, aided considerably by strong performances, the actors doing their best to breathe life into characters that never evolve beyond types. Hamilton is the can-do female protagonist rising to leadership status but with pain in her past she needs to deal with (the latter element is particularly clumsy). Schmidt (Daniel Brühl) is the single-minded lead scientist, even plotting to wrest control of the station at one point (the retrenchment that comes from finding his alt-self took even more treacherous actions gives Schmidt a touch more substance than the others, but only a touch).
Kiel (David Oyelowo) is the reliable leader who eventually sacrifices himself for the good of the mission. Volkov (Aksel Hennie, of Headhunters) is the aggressive dissenting voice, because it wouldn’t do to have everyone getting on clinically well with each other. And Mundy (Chris O’Dowd) is the comic relief. There’s also Tam (Ziyi Zhang) who makes little impression other than being Schmidt’s love interest and dying rather creatively (flash-frozen in a submerged compartment) and Monk (a bald John Ortiz), a devout doctor who becomes unaccountably squeamish at the prospect of cutting a fellow crewmember open.
Mundy: Well, we found the worms.
The structure follows the necessarily predictable path of whittling down its crew one by one. However, without a monster on the loose, it needs to achieve this largely through mishaps and mayhem. At least, until Jensen decides they’re all expendable. The aftermath of the transfer, as Volkov begins feeling unwell and finds his left eyeball lodged in the corner of his eye, and then the other corner, before 3-D printing a gun and, before he can use it, erupting rudely forth with the station’s supply of missing (test?) worms, is effectively gruey, intimating we may be in store for something closer to the body and psychological horror of Event Horizon or Prometheus. At what point the gyroscope appeared inside him is anyone’s guess, though, as you’d have thought he’d notice something that substantial (how Mundy’s arm was able to offer pointers bears even less scrutiny).
Mundy: Is there any chance it might grow back?
The best-sustained pieces of strangeness, however, occur either side of this. Jensen’s arrival on the station, materialising behind a wall, with power cables piercing through her flesh – it’s lucky medical advances come on in leaps and bounds over the next decade, such that she’s up and about in no time – is redolent of Philadelphia Experiment lore (in which crew members were purported to have merged with bulkheads). This is further emphasised when Mundy’s arm is later swallowed into the same wall.
Mundy: My arm helped us find the Earth!
The sight of Mundy with a cleanly severed limb resembling a cartoon steak is both uncanny and funny, and only doubled down on when the arm itself shows up, the best (first?) sentient appendage we’ve seen since Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (“I think my arm’s trying to write something… What are you talking about, arm?”) If the makers had been canny, the weirdness would only have continued and even accelerated, rather than retreating into standard disaster tropes; the last such strangeness we see is the whipped-up magnetic field melding Mundy and his futuristic metal sealant into a wall.
O’Dowd’s quips are definitely the highlight of the picture (“Even with one stumpy arm, I think I can get this done”), and in a more crowd-pleasing version, the reshoots would have done well to retcon him back to life. I’d certainly have been up for a goofier, Deep Blue Sea-esque digression over the way things stagnate in the last half hour, complete with Mundy’s arm suddenly appearing to save the day (presumably it survives the movie).
Ava: Go to your husband and your children right now. Go to them and hold them and kiss them and love them and know how blessed you are.
Alas, we’re expected to tear up over Ava’s message to her alt-self, after she has symbolically destroyed her warped dreams by shooting a hole in the station window/vid screen (frankly, even Kiel telling her that her plan to see her alt-self’s kids – who died in her reality – is nuts and her acknowledging it isn’t enough to give Ava a free pass for her intention to initiate such a stupid course of action). I initially thought the final shot had the monster breaking through the clouds having swallowed the escape craft, which would have been a marvellously sick twist, but we weren’t even offered that scrap.
The Cloverfield Project looks very nice, courtesy of Dan Mindel’s cinematography. Julius Onah directs competently, while Bear McCreary offers exactly the kind of score you’d expect for this sort of picture (forgettable). As B-movies go, there are far worse out there, and Netflix probably rightly saw it as a no-brainer acquisition, but it can’t help but be a disappointment for a movie with the Cloverfield brand attached; it also inevitably calls the future of the series into question.
Bad Robot has Overlord, a WWII Nazi-Zombie flick, due for (cinema) release in October, believed to be the next Cloverfield, so one assumes both JJ and Paramount were in agreement on the decision to hand this one to Netflix (gotta keep JJ sweet), aware of the inevitable “straight-to-video” jeers that would accompany the decision. Hopefully the third episode is merely a stumble, and Overlord – or whatever its title becomes – will be a bounce back.