There has always been a well-orchestrated campaign of secrecy surrounding the Cloverfield franchise. The first chapter was announced with an untitled trailer, teasing the destruction of New York in a film that had been a secret up until then. The second was shot with a different title and only revealed as a linked property with, yes, another surprise trailer. It seems only fitting that the third would then also be officially launched with a mysterious teaser debuting during this year’s Super Bowl.
Originally due to be released theatrically by Paramount, the film was instead sold to Netflix who decided to give it a shock launch by the time the game was over. It’s an audacious move to unveil a franchise film of this scale in such a fashion, and while initial murmurs suggested the studio might have avoided a cinema run because the film might be a bit too complex for a mass audience, the truth is ultimately something far more obvious: The Cloverfield Paradox is an unholy mess.
The Earth is suffering from an energy crisis and as a result, war is brewing. A potential solution sees a team of experts flown from Earth out to a space station where they will use a particle accelerator to tap into an unlimited source of energy. Ava (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is leaving behind a loving husband but also a tragedy that saw her two young children die. Along with her international crew (that also includes David Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl and Zhang Ziyi), she works tirelessly in an attempt to save humankind. But the process takes longer than expected and when it seems like they might have finally cracked it, all hell breaks loose onboard.
As with 2016’s superb thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane, this chapter was originally an unrelated story, called God Particle, that got engulfed within the Cloverfield banner. While the previous transition was smooth, this time around the cracks are noticeable throughout. There are so many disparate elements carelessly smashed together by director Julius Onah, some of them genuinely intriguing yet most of them largely nonsensical, making it all feel like not just one but several scripts thrown into the same pot. Right from the start, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this was a troubled production. There are unexplained plot elements, underwritten characters and messy editing choices that’ll make viewers wonder if they missed something in the blink of an eye (in one scene, a character reacts to something that a different character was told in secret).
What the film does manage well, aside from some nifty production design, is a string of effective shock moments from the disappearance of a planet to some nasty business with a bunch of worms. But what the ensuing script fails to do is provide a convincing enough explanation for any of them. There’s a lazy blanket excuse for chaos that feels like a bit of a cop-out, covering any offbeat direction the film chooses to take. There’s also some equally lazy exposition jammed into key scenes while at other times, some developments are confusingly underheated.
What worked so well with 10 Cloverfield Lane was a grounded sense that no matter how fantastical the events might seem, the characters responded in a believably naturalistic manner. Admittedly, the setup was far simpler but the stark difference in film to film makes this feel like even more of a disappointment. The characters here never feel like they could exist in a world outside of this space station, all of them barking in tech-speak at each other, rarely acting in what could be classified as recognizably human behavior.
It’s a shame given the care that’s gone into assembling the cast (also including Chris O’Dowd and Elizabeth Debicki) that each talented actor hasn’t been given more to do. Mbatha-Raw again shows what an underused star she is and, against all odds, carries the film’s minimal emotional weight in a number of scenes made poignant only by her impressively empathetic work. Around her, it’s frustrating to see skilled actors drowning in poorly explained jargon, the script failing to create any juicy dramatic conflict between the crew.
As the film bumbles from one confusingly mounted scene to the next, disappointment turns to boredom. The eerie early scenes fade into standard space horror panic and given how crowded that particular subgenre is, The Cloverfield Paradox emerges as a pale imitation. Just last year, the underseen Life managed to combine thrills and ingenuity while at the same time Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, while deeply flawed, possessed a narrative flow that’s sorely absent here.
In offloading the film to Netflix, Paramount has saved themselves a sorry box office failure. Like with December’s Bright, an underwhelming genre piece will likely attract a large audience on the streaming platform but it’s unlikely that many will finish the film feeling satisfied. The Cloverfield franchise is rumored to grow even more later this year with a second world war-set thriller potentially unspooling in October. If this is the level of what we can expect then maybe the next surprise release should be not releasing it at all.