Film Review: The Cloverfield Paradox

Netflix betrays the public trust with the shoddy The Cloverfield Paradox


Netflix, in an unprecedented move, dropped an entire feature-length film onto unsuspecting audiences right after the Super Bowl last night. The third film in the Cloverfield franchise developed by J.J. Abrams, The Cloverfield Paradox is a new sci-fi film that attempts to tackle parallel universes, space adventure, and giant monsters...and fails miserably. Uninspired, lazy, and mostly just nonsensical, The Cloverfield Paradox is a waste of a perfectly executed marketing stunt. Mild spoilers ahead...

On December 13th of 2013, Beyoncé released her self-titled visual album. A tightly kept secret, Beyoncé ambushed fans with no advertising, no promotion, and no warning. On December 9th in a sneaky bit of subterfuge as well as hype-building, and less than a week before the surprise album exclusively hit iTunes, Rob Stringer, the chairman of Columbia Records, purposefully misled the media with a statement announcing a "monumental" album from Beyoncé would be arriving sometime in 2014. When the album shockingly did drop only four days later, Twitter went into hysterics and fans went nuts. Beyoncé took a huge risk, patiently kept this giant secret, and it paid off handsomely. The marketing was revolutionary, but more importantly, the product was fantastic - Beyoncé was a critically-acclaimed smash that went on to secure double-platinum status.

I'm sure that The Cloverfield Paradox's guerrilla release, like Beyoncé, took many people by surprise. A quick teaser in the middle of the Super Bowl announced that instead of the previously rumored April theatrical release, Netflix would make the film available for streaming immediately after the big game. Not only was I surprised, but I was excited as well. As a sucker for parallel universe fiction, I couldn't wait to get home from the Super Bowl party and unwind with this unexpected Netflix drop. And look at that cast! Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beyond the Lights)! Daniel Brühl (Inglourious Basterds)! Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)! Chris O'Dowd (Bridesmaids)! David Oyelowo (Selma)! With an interesting premise and an A-list cast, there was so much going for The Cloverfield Paradox that even the rumors of a troubled production couldn't dissuade me from watching - besides, 10 Cloverfield Lane suffered from similar problems, and that film turned out to be one of 2016's best thrillers.

While the Cloverfield franchise isn't groundbreaking by any means (the first entry is a found-footage kaiju movie, the second a bottle-episode escape thriller tangentially related to the mythology), the first two films are entertaining and well-made enough to be fondly remembered by critics and audiences alike. Unfortunately, The Cloverfield Paradox is just plain disappointing throughout its anemic 102 minute runtime: a failure on pretty much every level despite its high-concept pedigree and stellar cast. What's even more baffling is the way Netflix handled its release. After watching the film, it's obvious that this was a shoddy movie that Paramount (the studio who sold it to Netflix) had no idea what to do with. The project started off as The God Particle at Paramount, a sci-fi thriller that slightly resembles the final product but was in the beginning completely unrelated to the Cloverfield franchise. When J.J Abrams took over producer duties, the decision was made to make it into the third entry in the series and the film was slated for a February 24, 2017 release date; and then it was delayed to October 27th; and finally it was shelved from 2017 completely. Unlike 10 Cloverfield Lane, the production woes of The Cloverfield Paradox are glaring in the final product, and for Netflix to release it as a "surprise" release boggles the mind. Viral marketing stunts like this can work wonders for any artist or brand, and the public audience will buy into anything with enough hype attached to it with an almost blind trust. But the product had better live up to that hype, because if that trust is betrayed, it could damage even the most resilient of reputations. The Cloverfield Paradox is a clear example of a subpar product failing to live up to its brilliant marketing (or lack thereof, in this case). 

The film closely follows the crew of the Cloverfield station, an experimental space station with a particle accelerator on board for the sole purpose of finding an infinitely renewable source of energy for a dying Earth that has been drained of its resources. After a successful collision following two years of failed attempts, the station and its crew are mysteriously transported to another universe, with their own Earth nowhere in sight. I won't say much more about the plot, and that's not because of spoilers, but because there isn't much else left to say: to categorize the plot as thin would be an understatement, and likely any tired trope you've encountered in dozens of other and far superior space-set films are on full display here. The barely-there plot is weakly supported by a sleepwalking cast, shambling through a charisma-less script way beneath the caliber of actors like Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Daniel Brühl. Mbatha-Raw gets some tragic backstory shading that provides some motivation for her character, but if all The Cloverfield Paradox needed was fodder to spout exposition and then be systematically killed off in increasingly absurd ways, why hire this A-list cast? And when I say absurd, I do mean absurd in ways that defy all logic and sound storytelling. From what the film was setting up and the history of the franchise, I expected giant monsters and parallel universe threats (which in all fairness, we do get some of that), but what I didn't expect was ludicrous horror beats that include a sentient severed arm (it even writes!), hungry flesh-eating walls, and killer space putty - all concepts that sound like they originated from an LSD-induced fever dream. The script also doesn't seem to have a scientific fact-checker either, because even I, as someone with no science background whatsoever, yelled out multiple times "That's not how that works!"

As ridiculously incoherent The Cloverfield Paradox is, I will concede that the film is quite pretty to look at. Julius Onah has a great eye shooting the interiors of the space station, with pleasing compositions and sprawling wide shots that convey the appropriate icy solitude. It's unfortunate that Onah's eye couldn't be accompanied by a competent script, because with the cast he had at his disposal, there was little standing between him and a sci-fi smash hit. 

Will The Cloverfield Paradox ruin Netflix's reputation? Of course not. However, I will think twice before blindly indulging in one of their "surprise" releases again, and I suspect many others will do the same.