Last night we had one heck of a surprise. Netflix announced that “The Cloverfield Paradox” would drop immediately after the Super Bowl and despite being a big fan of the Patriots (congrats Eagles we’ll get you next time) I wanted the game to end there and then so I could watch one of my personal most anticipated projects of the year. As the third entry in J.J. Abram’s sci-fi “Cloverfield” franchise “The Cloverfield Paradox”, originally conceived as “The God Particle”, continues one of the most fun, mysterious and creatively marketed film series in modern cinema offering a possible explanation for the strange occurrences within the Cloverfield universe including the monster known as Clover from the original found footage cult classic. Hotly anticipated by fans and one of the most talked about surprises of Super Bowl Sunday, does this latest entry in the franchise hold up or fall flat? Here is my review of “The Cloverfield Paradox”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“The Cloverfield Paradox” focuses on an international crew aboard the space station Cloverfield working to perfect the Shepard, a particle accelerator that could be the key to an energy crisis down on Earth. The crew consists of Ava Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Kiel (David Oyelowo), Schmidt (Daniel Brühl), Monk (John Ortiz), Mundy (Chris O’Dowd), Volkov (Aksel Hennie) and Tam (Shang Ziyi) each with their own personalities and expertise. After two years the crew has failed to get the Shepard to work properly and as their work progresses fear among conspiracy theorists on Earth brings about the Cloverfield Paradox theory, that the team’s success could open doorways to new dimensions and monstrosities to visit earth. When the crew finally succeeds they find themselves transported away from earth while unknown forces do, in fact, begin to take their toll on the planet. When strange occurrences start to impact the crew aboard Cloverfield one by one and a mysterious new crew member is found on board the survivors must come together to battle the unknown and find a way home.
Not as impressive as the cast might make you think. The film contains some notable heavy hitters in the form of Daniel Brühl, David Oyelowo and Chris O’Dowd but to be honest the cast doesn’t really come off as a top-notch group of performers. “The Cloverfield Paradox” is made up of blatant clichés, a pretty neat aspect of the movie I’ll touch on later, and unfortunately the actors fit right in with that theme becoming more representative of science fiction must-haves than actual unique characters that stand out on their own. Everyone is here, the religious believer, the comedic relief, the cabin fevered aggressor, the logical scientist, the might-be-might-not-be villain, the unwavering leader, and, of course, our main character who is a trouble heroine we can route for. It’s not to say all of these performances are inherently bad, they’re just worn out and the film does nothing to truly allow these performances to shine on their own. It kind of leans a little too much on its obvious attempt to pay tribute to science fiction classics of the past.
A few performances do stand out however. The lead role of Ava is well cast with Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the starring role. While she’s not the most complex female character to ever be in space she is a trooper who balances a depressing past with her hopes for a brighter future making her probably the most human and relatable of the bunch. Mbatha-Raw isn’t exactly a scene stealer, but she holds her own against the rest of this ensemble cast driving many of the scenes she’s in without overpowering her fellow actors. She does just enough to be one of the most memorable characters in this film but not enough to be anywhere near as iconic as it seems the filmmakers wanted Ava to be.
The real standout role for me however was Chris O’Dowd who was one of the few actors who genuinely seemed to not only enjoy but completely own his opportunity to be a sci-fi cliché. O’Dowd plays Mundy, the Cloverfield’s sarcastic mechanic, and does a fine job of making a relative throwaway character THE most memorable human in this film with well timed and phrased one liners and a seemingly endless dry sense of realism that makes him one of the few to look at the crew’s fate and understand how terrifyingly ridiculous it all is. Even when he becomes a part of one of the film’s most shocking scenes O’Dowd’s Mundy still maintains a sense of humor and, in an odd and morose sort of way, actually seems to relate to how the audience inevitably reacts to his situation. He easily shifts from “holy crap that was scary” to “oh, come on” in the blink of an eye so honestly, even though he’s not a major member of the crew, I thought Mundy was probably among the most enjoyable and charming characters in the entire story.
These next few sections will be a bit vague on plot details since giving away too much would spoil the experience for you, but the first bright spot is that despite being sub par overall “The Cloverfield Paradox” is still just that, an experience. While it doesn’t hold a candle to either of its predecessors, it does successfully stick to the theme presented by the first two movies in taking on a new science fiction sub-genre (space exploration) and becoming actually a nifty little send up to the clichés of the genre as a whole. There are signs of nearly every modern and classic science fiction film in here from last years’ “Life” all the way back to the likes of “Alien”. Some might find this to be a bit cheesy and detrimental to the story, but I actually enjoyed this aspect of the film as it gave “The Cloverfield Paradox” a familiar feel that the story kind of needed in order to be watchable. Even with all of these clichés and familiar story elements “The Cloverfield Paradox” doesn’t feel weighed down. There are also many surprises that we HAVEN’T seen before, at least not quite like this, including one of the most brutally graphic and disgusting deaths you’ll ever see aboard a spaceship. Despite its heavy dependence on sci-fi tropes of days past a few moments in particular that proved to be truly shocking and unexpected. All of this plays into the film’s attempt to match the odd and uncomfortable experiences the first two movies provided, and, in a lot of ways, it works and in some ways it really falls flat. It’s all a matter of taste really.
As a continuation of the “Cloverfield” legacy “The Cloverfield Paradox” is more hit than miss, but fans of the series will probably feel a little let down by the final product as it’s nowhere near as perfect or polished as the first two movies. Still, what it does offer adds to the mystery of the franchise’s universe and even ties into what we’ve already seen. We get some answers to old questions and some new questions to ponder. As a bridge film of sorts that ties the first two together you still need to come into it with a very open mind but given some thought and careful analysis “The Cloverfield Paradox” effectively serves as a soruce of closure of several elements of its predecessors even if it doesn’t answer ALL the questions we have going in.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
The irony is it’s not the answers the film offers that prove to be frustrating, it’s the new questions and the lack of dedication to building on the mind-bending concepts it introduces. The filmmakers really didn’t do anything at all with anything they threw in for shock value. While these scenes are satisfying in the moment, they’re quickly forgotten and leave us more confused that mystified. It’s alright for a film like this to leave questions, in fact with this series it’s pretty much essential, but to provide almost NO answers or payoff despite the buildup is frustrating. It’s cool to see the odd and brutal things the Cloverfield crew has to face and the inventive ways they are killed off, but the lack of any true explanation as to why these things are happening other than a phoned in connection to the Shepard makes it harder to enjoy. I mean even “Paranormal Activity” provided some closure to the odd happenings in its plot. This movie shoots us strange paranormal and odd occurrences, like voices in the head and things moving by themselves, then does nothing with them. Then when we are given a villain to fear they prove to be a simple just another cliché when the film itself even acknowledged there was apparently a much more promising and dangerous possibility of who could destroy the crew of Cloverfield. Basically, that’s a long way of me saying “The Cloverfield Paradox” offers some cool visuals and moments of space-themed terror and fear, but does absolutely nothing with it with no context or explanation or even any true closure to the mystery of what, if anything, is making all these weird things happen. Is it the ship? An unseen entity? we don’t know and we never really get to find out.
Also the whole experience feels dull and uneven. There are moments of excitement and it’s neat to see old tricks done in new ways, but the energy, charisma and excitement we’ve come to know from the first two films is absent. That’s probably because we actually do kind of know how this is all going to end. That sense of nostalgia can only take you so far and once it wears off “The Cloverfield Paradox” becomes kind of bland and uninteresting especially when there seems to be so much promise of a bigger, more mysterious antagonist than what we end up getting. Again I repeat that this film even hints at more terrifying possibilities in its own presentations and for some reason the filmmakers just decided to do nothing with these concepts instead settling for the most basic of space-themed terror without effectively explore all the possibilities they had to work with. It’s just not enough to help this film rise to the occasion and those who truly enjoyed and invested in the first two films will likely find that “The Cloverfield Paradox” is a step down in almost every aspect, from presentation to intellectual quality. It has its moments, but not enough to live up to the lofty expectations put upon it and while it does build on the “Cloverfield” mythos, it truly does feel like a bridge movie made to fill in blanks and create more mystery that never satisfies rather than blow our minds with fully realized creativity and awe like the first two.
As a fan of the first two “Cloverfield” films I truly wanted to enjoy “The Cloverfield Paradox” and I kind of did, but kind of is not enough for a franchise of this caliber. On one hand it’s a fun, cliché filled send up to genre classics that manages to find it’s own life at times but overall these clichés and tropes aren’t enough to make this memorable or interesting all the way through. The acting is mostly phoned in with a bland script and basic approach with only a few characters being truly invested in the chaos. Still, we get some awesome visual elements and some “ah ha” moments that connect the “Cloverfield” movies together nicely. Sadly everything good about this film never really comes around to bring us any answers or lasting shock value with only small glimmers of a much better horror story. While the visuals are good in the moment, the overall experience feels a bit messy, rushed and disjointed. As you can see, every bright spot seems to have a negative with this movie. Simply put, at best it’s an average film that seems out of place in a fantastic series and is by far the worst “Cloverfield” film. Depending on what you want for it it’s either cool or frustrating and regardless it’s merely on par with many other modern sci-fi offerings. If you’re a fan and you’ve invested your time in the “Cloverfield” experience this film will probably offer barely enough through its connections to the first two alone to keep you invested. If you’re not really into the extended universe that producer J.J. Abram’s has helped create then this film will probably come off as nothing more than a cheep knockoff Netflix decided to throw out there to see who would bite. For me it was fun and didn’t COMPLETELY disappoint, it’s just not anywhere near the kind of quality movie I wanted it to be.
GRADE: (an admittedly soft)