Let’s lay it all out up front: The Cloverfield Paradox is going to be one of the biggest cinematic letdowns in J. J. Abrams’ career. Set in a near-future where intense energy shortages have pushed countries to the brink of World War III, The Cloverfield Paradox follows a team of scientists aboard an international space station where they plan on testing a particle accelerator with the hopes of bringing unlimited, free energy to the world.
While most of the world looks to the mission as the last hope of a dying planet, some critics of the mission fear that it will create a “Cloverfield Paradox” that releases horrific monsters from alternate dimensions across every dimension’s timeline, at any point in time. The idea is solid, but it’s all established in the first fifteen minutes. The remaining hour and a half is dealing with the anticipated effects of these tests, as well as the usual clichés that plague almost every space-fi film since Alien.
Overall, the story is muddled, as though several integral elements are missing from the core of the plot. Similarly, there’s next to no character development or even back story for a majority of the astronauts. What we’re left with is a team of people we know nothing about and care little for, watching only to try to make sense of the questions previous films in the franchise left us with.
Of course, there’s good that comes with the bad. While the story can be confusing and the characters one-dimensional, each actor delivers a strong performance in their role. The visuals are stunning, and the consistency in Dan Mindel’s cinematography and the straightforward nature of the camera work gives this film a strong sense of atmosphere. Likewise, the visuals of the station in orbit and the detailed interior flourish under Julius Onah’s skillful directorship.
The space station always appears pristine – even after some of the intense body horror scenes – in stark contrast with the desolation that Michael Hamilton faces as he traverses the city. And the music and sound throughout the film adds a lot to the narrative structure of the film, pushing both the horror and science-fueled awe in tandem throughout. Still, there are scenes that look as though they were ripped directly from Ridley Scott’s tormented world, as well as a plethora of plot devices and character deaths that feel like they were stitched into the movie solely because they are hallmarks of B-list space fiction.
One of the most talked about components of this installment in the Cloverfield franchise won’t even be in the movie though; it will be its sudden dead drop to Netflix. For major fans of the series, this should have been a dream – anticipating a new film for months, waiting through the slog of post-production delays, and suddenly, without warning, having the wait removed without a second thought – but as it turns out, sudden drops feel more like an offloading of bad product if the film can’t deliver.
The silver lining of this instant gratification mentality was Bad Robot’s just-as-sudden announcement of the fourth Cloverfield film’s post-production status within hours of The Cloverfield Paradox‘s unexpected screening. Currently entitled Overlord, this film is about the sudden appearance of monsters in World War II as a result of the follies of the Shepard experiment in Paradox. I only hope that this fourth film can incorporate Paradox‘s plot without stooping to its level.
Now, I’ve always been a major Abrams fan, and by default, I became a huge Bad Robot fan after Cloverfield. Maybe I’m a little obsessive about these sorts of movies – the previous viral marketing campaigns for Super 8 and both of the Cloverfield flicks up until this point have been nothing short of hypemaster-level brilliance. And after all, Cloverfield and Super 8 were turning points for how I viewed film.
The first Cloverfield movie was the big monster creature feature that Abrams wanted for America, and Super 8 was the starting point for the ragtag group of children vs. monster trope that is receiving so much critical acclaim today (see Stranger Things and the 2017 It if you aren’t already familiar). Abrams and his team’s eye for detail is matched only by their storytelling abilities – usually.
That’s why Paradox is so disappointing. With multiple award-winning displays of sci-fi genius, it’s hard to come to terms with the slow, atonal qualities of Bad Robot’s flop. And after being treated to strong combinations of good story and excellent cinematography for so long, this installment is more likely to feel like a mash-up of Abrams’ beloved lens flares and space visuals than a movie with any narrative direction.
The Cloverfield Paradox never promised a lot. In fact, the whole concept was mostly under wraps, consisting exclusively of a brief iMDB page for The God Particle (its previous working title) and a series of press releases postponing its release date, right up until the ominous “Coming Very Soon” announcement during the 2018 Super Bowl.
Even so, with its sci-fi typical lack of character development and rampant overuse of cliché plot devices, Paradox is like a rehashing of every space film that ever left us feeling like we should’ve read the Wikipedia page and moved on with our lives. Of course, it’s disappointing coming from one of the heaviest hitters in the genre, but Abrams has built his legacy on doing the unexpected. I can’t help but feel that he’s done it yet again – after all, no one saw this dud coming.