In 2008, producer J.J. Abrams and director Matt Reeves shocked the world with the release of a secretive project codenamed Cloverfield, a found footage monster movie that many considered to be this decade’s The Blair Witch Project.
While many called for a direct follow-up, Abrams answered their demands through different means: months before its release in 2016, he announced 10 Cloverfield Lane, a spiritual, smaller-budgeted successor to the original kaiju blockbuster.
Now, Abrams and Paramount have teamed up with Netflix to perform the ultimate marketing coup: the revelation through a Super Bowl Sunday trailer that, on that very same day, Netflix would be releasing the previously unconfirmed third entry in the Cloverfield saga, The Cloverfield Paradox.
This spontaneous promotional technique is radical and brilliant, worthy of commendation for sure. And yet perhaps The Cloverfield Paradox should have remained a mystery to us all, because unlike its predecessors, it fails to produce any semblance of a satisfying cinematic experience.
As it has been shrouded in such secrecy, all I can really say about the film’s plot is that it involves a space station dubbed Cloverfield Station, manned by a diverse band of technicians and scientists, led by Commander Kiel (David Oyelowo). It’s mission? To activate the Shepard, a newly-designed particle accelerator that is hoped to be capable of solving the Earth’s energy crisis.
Now, for those of you that are well-versed in the sci-fi horror sub-genre, you might recognise that summary from another film: Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, a film that also focuses on a courageous crew out to save the world from impending doom. And yet, The Cloverfield Paradox sporadically morphs into a different beast entirely as it progresses, turning into a forced futuristic thriller that deals in the bonkers science seen in films such as Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon. Even then, amidst all the scientific jargon, it aims to please with a number of narrative twists and turns that are indicative of films such as Ridley Scott’s Alien and Daniel Espinosa’s Life.
I think you see what I’m getting at: The Cloverfield Paradox doesn’t feature an ounce of originality over its two-hour runtime. Rather than provoke a reaction through a fresh approach to this kind of material, director Julius Onah and screenwriters Oren Uziel and Doug Jung were working overtime, studying the book of sci-fi horror clichés in the local library of lazy storytelling. You can practically call out each narrative event, spot all the lines of dialogue that you’ve heard a million times before, all of which is conveyed through Dan Mindel’s risk-free visual lens that brings nothing new to the cinematographic table.
What hurts the film more is the cast that producers J.J. Abrams and Lindsey Weber have amassed for such a lacklustre endeavour: roping in the talented likes of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Daniel Brühl and the aforementioned Oyelowo, you’d expect a roster of fine performances to counterbalance the hackneyed writing. But aside from Mbatha-Raw and Brühl, who both squeeze just about enough intensity and emotion out of their lines, the remaining cast members fall victim to the film’s passé plotting. Chris O’Dowd feels at odds with the film’s serious tone as the ‘comic relief’, Mundy. Oyelowo has nothing to do except stoically distribute orders. It’s a shame for such sophisticated performers to be stranded with a script that refuses to give them any room for experimentation and depth, beneath the surface of stereotypes.
Ultimately, this is where the fault lies: the script. The direction is distant; the performances struggle to make lemonade out of the rotten fruit that the screenplay provides. It’s a messy collection of disparate elements that all clunk together in order to tell a generic story with a sporadic tendency to force in unnecessary references to Cloverfield films past. What could have been a run-of-the-mill, claustrophobic thriller isn’t even granted that questionable luxury, with the film unusually diverging into a sub-plot involving a man on the ground (Roger Davies) that feels so random, that it threatens to derail the film. The twists and turns conflict with character motivations. Exposition spews from the mouths of protagonists, in order to explain the film’s overly-complicated science. There’s no delicacy here, no ambition to produce an ambiguous blockbuster akin to the original.
Look, I wasn’t expecting 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris. But director Julius Onah and producer J.J. Abrams might well have taken a page out of Daniel Espinosa’s book at least, for last year’s underrated Life. A functional thriller built on brilliantly planned set-pieces that all played out without a whiff of world-building waffle, Life is everything that The Cloverfield Paradox should have been. Instead, the latter film is a crushing disappointment that signals the need for a narrative redirect in the Cloverfield saga.