REVIEW: ‘The Cloverfield Paradox’ is an astonishingly silly bundle of loose ends

Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Hamilton in  The Cloverfield Paradox .

Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Hamilton in The Cloverfield Paradox.

Don’t tell the Internet, but movies are allowed to have a few holes in them. If a movie devoted time to closing every gap in its plot, there would be no room for character development, emotion, or humour. There’s a limit, though: if your movie is nothing but loose ends, that’s how you get your film dumped on Netflix with no advance marketing.

Such is the fate of The Cloverfield Paradox, a stunningly well-cast sci-fi based on a Black List script, which seems to have undergone so much re-tooling, at every stage of production, that it barely resembles a completed film. There are plenty of ideas on display here (literally: the film crams in quantum entanglement, meeting your doppelgänger, outer-space espionage, an energy crisis, mind-controlling worms, and more). But most of the concepts are hurriedly introduced and then abandoned, leaving behind an experience that feels like a generic mashup of every sci-fi release from the past thirty years.

As you can guess from the name, Paradox is the newest entry in the loose, almost anthology-like Cloverfield series, which began in 2008 with a found-footage monster film set in New York. The original film had its merits, but it couldn’t quite supersede the inherent barrier to any found-footage movie: why do the characters keep filming, even when they’re in imminent danger of being chomped or squished?

David Oyelowo as Commander Kiel (centre) and John Ortiz as Monk (left).

David Oyelowo as Commander Kiel (centre) and John Ortiz as Monk (left).

The first film eventually became better remembered for its marketing campaign: a tense teaser bearing no title – just a release date – that ran before the first Transformers movie, along with mysterious, viral websites for organizations from the world of the movie. It was followed up with 10 Cloverfield Lane, a superior, traditionally-shot thriller set in the bunker of a paranoid doomsayer (John Goodman) who “saves” two people from what he believes is a global disaster on the surface.

Paradox moves the action to outer space, where a group of scientists (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl, Zhang Ziyi, Chris O’Dowd and Elizabeth Debicki) have gathered in a massive space station to test a particle accelerator. They hope the experiment will solve the aforementioned crisis by unlocking a limitless source of energy, ending a simmering political conflict. After many failed attempts, they finally get the device working, only to discover that the Earth has suddenly vanished. As even stranger incidents begin hindering the crew’s efforts to return home, time is running out for both the crew and the 8 billion people on Earth to figure out how to survive.

The film deserves some praise (faint though it may be in relation to the movie’s other issues) for placing a woman of colour (Mbatha-Raw) in the lead role of a franchise installment, and for hiring Julius Onah for the director’s job. It’s just a shame that we can’t make out what the movie might have looked like if it was more sensibly assembled. You can tell we’re in trouble early on, when Brühl’s character Schmidt is put forward as a possible saboteur for his native Germany, when the story is still in the throes of establishing the main threat: the disappearance of an entire planet. This move might make sense if Paradox had the length of a TV season to play with, but it has a paltry 102 minutes.

More puzzling is that the film has more complications still to unveil. The list of weird occurrences grows to the point that the actors seem to be losing their ability to keep a straight face. At one point, Mundy (O’Dowd) has his arm pulled off through some sort of dimensional rift. When it appears later on, groping its way down a hallway, O’Dowd looks like Jimmy Fallon on SNL, trying his damnedest not to ruin the take by collapsing in laughter.

I desperately wish I was a fly on the wall for some of the conversations that were had as this thing was put together. So I’ll have to make them up: “Why isn’t Mundy in pain or bleeding when his arm disappears?” “Because of…dimensions and stuff?”; “Do these two scenes work next to each other?” “F*** it, who cares? Let’s put it on Netflix and see if anyone watches it by accident!”

Elizabeth Debicki as Jensen.

Elizabeth Debicki as Jensen.

It’s tempting to take a page from Pete Wells and let this review exist as a string of questions the film leaves me with, but I’ll just save a few for the Stray Thoughts section below. I will, though, touch on one thing that I feel particularly disappointed by. Late in the story, we’re introduced to the idea that Hamilton (Mbatha-Raw) may get the chance to stop an alternate-dimension version of herself from making the same fatal mistake she made in her world. The philosophical possibilities of this scenario are rich, but in classic Hollywood studio style, the screenplay veers away in favour of a sudden betrayal, a shootout, and a last-minute escape.

It’s sad to see such a viable concept and a great cast get saddled with such a miserable final product. The Cloverfield Paradox can’t even deliver a satisfying visual experience: the sets and costumes are interchangeable with those of any mid-budget sci-fi from the past few years, and the visual effects could have been recycled from a recent AAA video game. In the end, the biggest mystery in this film is how it went so spectacularly wrong.

The Cloverfield Paradox gets one and a half stars out of four.

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Stray Thoughts

  • What happens with the evil space worms? Did they infect anyone else, or did the characters simply have some great insecticide on board?
  • I don’t believe for one second that the crew needed to send three people to fix the broken spinning doodad, or that they didn’t have some kind of robot that could do it.
  • It feels like a bunch of material with Hamilton’s husband got cut out. His rescue of the little girl goes nowhere, and he seems to know a lot more than he could given what we’re shown.
  • I will hand it to the movie for coming up with a new way for someone to die in space: an airlock that fills with water, explodes out of the ship, and freezes solid.