Movie Review: The Cloverfield Paradox
|And then there were three|
[This review contains minor spoilers.]
With energy resources becoming catastrophically scarce, humanity has launched an international crew of scientists and engineers into orbit aboard the space station Cloverfield, where a risky experiment is being run that might provide mankind with endless, free energy. After over two years of failed attempts to start the most powerful particle accelerator ever built, the crew finally succeeds, but something has gone terribly wrong: the Earth itself has vanished. What's more, strange things are happening that put all of their lives and the fate of the entire universe in jeopardy.
This is The Cloverfield Paradox, the third film in the J.J. Abrams-produced Cloverfield series. Releasing directly to Netflix earlier this week, this is a movie that has been gestating for quite some time under the working title "The God Particle," though it was folded into the Cloverfield universe once it was bought by Abrams' Bad Robot.
As with 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Cloverfield Paradox is largely a stand-alone story only tangentially related to its predecessors, and though it does have a few more obvious links to the original Cloverfield, it's still best to think of this franchise as an anthology horror/sci-fi series. Ads that announced the film during last Sunday's Super Bowl promise that this film explains where the monster from the original Cloverfield came from, but these promises are a bit exaggerated and misleading. In other words, don't go in expecting any concrete answers about what Cloverfield is and how it's all connected, if at all.
|They make these faces a lot|
Unfortunately, when compared to its two predecessors, The Cloverfield Paradox isn't nearly as remarkable. It is far less grounded--both literally and figuratively--and it never maintains the kind of tension or anxiety the series is known for. Instead, this is a schlocky sci-fi romp that dabbles in horror imagery. It is certainly entertaining and full of action, but it feels more like a mash-up of much better movies--Alien, Event Horizon, and Life, just to name a few--than anything that can stand on its own. The characters are all relatively flat and uninteresting; the science is laughably bad (characters toss around phrases like "quantum entanglement" and "Higgs boson" without seeming to know what they actually mean, as though audiences will think the script is smart just for using sciency terms); and most of the big setpiece moments will have you questioning their plausibility rather than marveling at their ingenuity.
It does start relatively strong and builds to a provocative moral dilemma in an admittedly good third act, but the meat of the movie--the hour-long second act--is nothing more than a series of random events that occur to move the plot in the direction the writer wants. Lots of crazy things happen, but they lack any rhyme or reason. The narrative tries to write this off as a side effect of a science experiment gone wrong, but it makes the story feel almost like its being made up as it goes along. For example, there's a point fairly early in the story where one character is locked in an airlock (as a kind of makeshift brig), but this stalls where the plot wants to go, so for no reason that is ever identified, the inner airlock door opens and lets him out, just in time so he can witness something weird that gets him back into the story with one or two handwaving lines of dialogue to explain why he doesn't need to be locked up anymore. It's unforgivably lazy writing, and the second act of the film is loaded to the gills with this kind of thing.
|This is going exactly where you think it is|
Also perplexing is the script's insistence on following a subplot on Earth involving the main character's husband. This B-plot is almost entirely irrelevant, and it lessens the tension of the space station by showing that the Earth is still there, even though the crewmembers of the Cloverfield don't know it. It feels utterly out of place and was most likely added into the script after it became a Cloverfield screenplay. Throughout the film, there are hints at other subplots that would have been more rewarding (and would have stayed aboard the station), but most of these are dropped unceremoniously, if not forgotten about altogether.
There are some positives, though. As previously mentioned, the third act is really good, and there are actors who elevate their bland characters in interesting ways. For starters, there's the exceptional Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Concussion, Beauty and the Beast), who plays the lead, an emotionally tortured young woman still coping with the loss of her two children. Also noteworthy is David Oyelowo (Selma, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and the always reliable Ziyi Zhang (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Memoirs of a Geisha). Less impessive is Daniel Brühl (Rush, Captain America: Civil War), an actor far better than his bored performance suggests.
|Mbatha-Raw has the stand-out performance|
One of the most interesting characters, though, isn't one of the crew; it's the space station itself. Imaginatively realized, the Cloverfield manages to feel both realistic and fantastic, and it certainly doesn't look much like like movie space stations we've seen before, even though the logic of its multiple spinning rings isn't immediately apparent. The set design, model work, and visual effects are all incredible, far better than one should expect from a direct-to-streaming release. It's also filled with neat sci-fi gadgets, like a 3D printer that makes bagels and a magnetic putty that can be electrified to mold around pipe fittings and do numerous repairs.
Still, I can't recommend The Cloverfield Paradox as anything more than a goofy sci-fi adventure. It feels like the kind of movie that was rampant in the nineties: an Alien knockoff that hides its few good ideas behind a lot of haunted house tropes and horror gags. There's a good movie in there, but it's so chopped up, poorly written, and sutured together that it never becomes more than a jaunty ride through a bunch of genre clichés. There's fun to be had with it, but it's by far the worst Cloverfield movie to date.
Some memorably weird moments and a solid third act can't make up for bland characters, terrible science, and a lazy script.
-e. magill 2/8/2018