There’s something very Silicon Valley about The Cloverfield Paradox, the surprise new Netflix Original Film that was dropped with a thud after the Super Bowl last night, ending months and months of speculation about whether or not it would ever actually hit theater screens. Despite the efforts of a cast and crew working with material well below their pay grade, I can’t help but shake the feeling that some sort of learning algorithm assembled this movie into its final form — perfect for quick advertising and its eventual abandonment after the first hundreds of people see it.
Honestly, this isn’t a good look for Netflix, as they’re now in the business of marketing sub-direct-to-video shlock to the masses bequeathed to them via skittish studios like Paramount who are comfortable taking less of a loss on this than have it flail on screens like mother! or Downsizing did last year.
That’s definitely not the killer-app movie theater murderer that Netflix wants to be, and releasing films like this is a good way to drive people away from the service. But given the streaming giant’s secrecy around its viewing numbers and its tendency to declare everything a major success (until things are inevitably cancelled to the outrage of a dedicated fanbase), I’m expecting Baghdad Bob-like proclamations about how this is the greatest success in their time on Earth as a company and that it’s become the most-watched film in the history of the medium, all without being required by anyone to back those proclamations up with data.
Anyways, Cloverfield. There are two distinct films present within the final product, and both serve various ends. The first we’ll lovingly call “God Particle,” as it shares enough details with the spec script that was absorbed by the Bad Robot blob to be recognizable: In the distant future, a group of scientists on board a space station are working to solve a planet-wide energy crisis with a new and untested particle accelerator. You’ve got your standard set of characters — the tough American commander (David Oyelowo), the goofball Irishman (Chris O’Dowd), the crazy-as-a-fox Russian (Aksel Hennie), the stern German (Daniel Bruhl) amongst others — and our ostensible protagonist is a UK scientist (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) with dead kids and oh god you know how this is going to go.
Given that the accelerator is untested, they fuck up a bunch, until finally, years later, they get it right and get a reaction. This reaction causes the Earth to disappear (this being the original big hook of the God Particle script), and some pretty weird shit starts to happen. The crew finds a woman (Elizabeth Debicki) embedded in the walls of their space station, much like in the Philadelphia Experiment urban legends, and frees her. She knows them, but they don’t know her. It’s spooky!
In all seriousness, there’s some effective and interesting stuff sprinkled throughout the hour and 20 minutes of this portion of the film. Debicki’s introduction is suitably grimy and horrifying, and a later on-table autopsy is fairly creepy, but it’s O’Dowd’s character who gets the one truly great moment of space oddity, as an accident causes him to lose his arm, only to have it reappear, slinking across the ship, minutes later. The revelations about where the characters are and the motivations of others are competently made, the set designs and art direction are generic, and there’s some decent writing present, though you’re given an odd feeling that nobody involved in the re-writing of that initial script knew anything about science beyond that you float in space and that there *might* be a multiverse.
The entire third act is underwhelming and just kinda dumb when you get down to it, and most of the performers are wasted under the utter plainness of their characters. In other words, it’s Life from last year all over again, with a similar talent pool and behind-the-camera pedigree (Julius Onah, one of the most exciting young African filmmakers working today) brought down by a crushingly dumb patchwork script. If this were it, The Cloverfield Paradox would simply just be mediocre — worth seeking out if you’re fascinated or thrilled by this science-fiction subgenre, maybe, or if you’re bored and stoned and looking for something kinda creepy — and forgettable.
But wait! There’s more! Remember, there’s another movie tacked on to the end of this: A short film, in fact, that pretty much ruins the whole damn experience. Not content with merely being another member of an anthology series, The Cloverfield Paradox attempts to explain the connections between it, the original Cloverfield, and the swell 10 Cloverfield Lane, and it does so in the most intelligence-insulting manner possible. These scenes were added almost entirely during reshoots meant to shore up the runtime and the initial perceived failures of God Particle’s runtime and story (hint: Anything set on Earth is from these), but mainly resemble a flailing producer’s attempt to drive interest to the film by flinging whatever stupid fanservice is needed to get the nerds at r/cloververse worked up into a frenzy.
That includes stuff as innocuous as the appearance of Donal Logue as a TV talking head who might be related to John Goodman’s character in the prior film, to the downright ugly, insulting and poorly-executed final shot, which contains effects work that’s so bad it should have been used as an NBC on-field graphic during last night’s gam; it’s just that awful. As far as surprises go, The Cloverfield Paradox is somewhere between your dog randomly sprouting a fifth leg and getting attacked by a group of rampaging seagulls at the start of the apocalypse.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.