Editor’s Note: Slight spoilers for The Cloverfield Paradox ahead.
Over the weekend, The Cloverfield Paradox was on no one’s radar, that is, until it actually was. In keeping with the greater Cloverfield franchise, The Cloverfield Paradox was dropped in our laps through a surprise marketing ploy when a trailer suddenly aired during Super Bowl LII. Distributed exclusively on Netflix, I just had to give the latest installment a look. When the credits rolled, I found myself scratching my head for a variety of reasons. I deduced that The Cloverfield Paradox borrows from a lot of tried and true films in the space genre while being kept aloft, slightly, by the series’ own brand of mythology.
Any time a new film in the franchise is released, I consciously put on my Cloverfield thinking cap. All of a sudden I’m once again calibrated to begin attaching and tying strings together. What point in time does The Cloverfield Paradox take place? Does this even take place in the same dimension? A different one? Are there consequences in this film, either direct or underlying, that affected the previous films?
This is something I absolutely love about the Cloverfield universe. It gets you to hypothesize. In the end, either your hypotheses are refuted, on point, or close enough. There’s always pleasure to be had when the audience gets to think. Heck, even a character who appeared in the social media alternate reality game marketing campaign appears in The Cloverfield Paradox. The character, a celebrated author in the dynamics of space-time, suggests that perverting these fundamental laws could destroy the fabric of reality itself, unleashing monsters. Emphasis on monsters, and thereby tickling our fancy.
This is where the dilemma behind The Cloverfield Paradox comes into play. Earth is basically running on fumes in terms of energy. Global superpowers are on the brink of another world war. Our planet’s only hope lies in the Cloverfield Station, a space station that houses the Shepard particle accelerator, the key to unlimited sustainable energy. Over the span of nearly 700 days the crew, made up of a melting pot of nationalities, fails to keep the particle accelerator stable. One day, however, they achieve the correct calculations and the accelerator roars to life, but the resulting overload causes the Earth to mysteriously disappear.
Thus ensues a series of calamities as the crew of the station desperately tries to find their way back home. It is here that the lines begin to blur for The Cloverfield Paradox. Lines between being a successor in the Cloverfield universe, and being a generic spacefaring thriller. The latter rears its head in the form of predictable character tropes. You have the reserved leader with a sense of greater purpose in Kiel (David Oyelowo). The no-nonsense physicist and her partner (Zhang Ziyi and Daniel Bruhl, respectively). A shady scientist in Volkov (Askel Hennie), with Mundy (Chris O’Dowd) filling in for the comic relief. It feels like we’ve seen this band of brothers and sisters before, most notably in ensembles from the Alien franchise. There’s not much in the way of character development for these individuals aside from their predefined roles.
The sole character who, I believe, doesn’t fall into this crevasse is Ava Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Ava is given more time to develop as a character than the other crew members. We see that in the conversations she’ll have onboard the Cloverfield station with her husband, Michael, who resides on Earth. Because Cloverfield Paradox deals with themes of alternate dimensions or realities, we also see the character study that is Ava Hamilton from a unique perspective, or, rather, conflicting perspectives.
Another page taken from the space thriller ‘how-to’ book is the use of body horror. As the audience, I understood that something went terribly wrong by the Earth’s sudden disappearance, and yet the film seeks to remind you that all is not right. I’m all for the spine-tingling eeriness of an experiment gone wrong, but Cloverfield Paradox manifests this dread in predictable ways. Gazing in a mirror to find something is wrong with your eyes, we’ve seen it. Crew members going catatonic or having fits of induced rage, we’ve seen that too.
However, The Cloverfield Paradox threw a few curveballs. Of course, with this genre of film, there’s going to be crew deaths. Just when I think I’ve seen someone get sucked out of an airlock, I instead see it in a new and terribly entertaining way. The Cloverfield Paradox, for a moment, made even the crew’s basic surroundings a death trap, where the laws of physics get thrown out the window in bizarre ways. I absolutely enjoyed the horror of seeing solid matter and flesh become atomically unstable, only to jump back and forth between being rigid and soluble.
While The Cloverfield Paradox is often dragged down by generic characters, there are moments when it skirts to brilliance as the film dips its toes in the Cloverfield waters. You see, the Cloverfield station’s disappearance is not the only conundrum of the Shepard accelerator going haywire. Something has gone wrong back on Earth. It harkens back to the original movie when Michael, the film’s tether back to Earth, begins hearing groans, seeing things stir in the shadows amongst inexplicable destruction, all whispers of a nameless horror. While tantalizing, the overhanging sense of dread is not buoyed as well as it was in Cloverfield, nor 10 Cloverfield Lane.
That’s due to the occasional shifts between Earth with Michael and Ava onboard the space station. In other words, we get to taste from the Cloverfield punch bowl for a bit before we’re in the vastness of space again, seemingly bouncing between two tones of film. One is suffering the consequences of an experiment gone wrong, and the other is trying to get back home while grappling with the moral ambiguity of possibly interfering with someone else’s dimension and reality. It all sounds great in theory. Putting it to film is a little tougher, though it’s still intriguing to watch it unfold at every turn.
I found myself subconsciously removing my Cloverfield thinking cap. This is a different Cloverfield film. Just as 10 Cloverfield Lane was a different film to its predecessor in 2016. The distinction here is that 10 Cloverfield Lane was a good and different movie in the franchise because it had identity, substance, and stayed grounded. The original Cloverfield was also grounded in that a group of friends were caught up in a terrible circumstance while the horror unfolded around them. Cloverfield focused solely on what was happening to that group of friends. That isn’t to say that The Cloverfield Paradox is a bad Cloverfield movie. Far from it. This film is also different in that we have yet to explore the cosmos in the Cloverfield universe. While we see some ties to the other films, even some Easter eggs peppered throughout, the space angle of the film is weighed down a bit by tropes we’ve seen in space movies of yesteryear, instead of slipping more into its Cloverfield namesake.
Had The Cloverfield Paradox perhaps stayed confined to the space-station alone, we may have gotten more ideal character development, or at least the scope of the plot could have stayed true. An approach in this manner could have given both the characters and the film a greater sense of depth. As it stands, some characters feel underutilized. Perhaps then, the consequences the Earth suffered from the experiment gone wrong would have hit home much more significantly. Before Ava and the rest of the crew are on the station, all seems well on Earth, more or less. Imagine then, to come home to an Earth where humans are about to be an endangered species. Either way, there is great fulfillment, and irony, in knowing that what our characters set out to do for good ended up damning the whole planet, and possibly every version of Earth across the multiverse.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the final cut all the same. It’s a chapter in the Cloverfield saga that’s worth giving at least a glance. I won’t spoil its ending, which is too darn good, but there was a glimmer of a what-if moment. A moment I thought would directly tie to the ending of the first Cloverfield film. What I saw did not disappoint. If anything, it made me yearn for Cloverfield Overlord, the next installment in the Cloverfield franchise. Until such a time a sequel comes when we least expect it, The Cloverfield Paradox can at least get you to think, and that’s one thing that Cloverfield does best.