The latest movie in the 'Cloverfield' franchise made a surprise drop during the Super Bowl. But it's more fumble than touchdown.
Credit: Scott Garfield/Netflix

The Cloverfield Paradox

What a splendid hustle these Cloverfield movies are! Ten years and three films deep, the loose trilogy is a case study in marketing, a portrait of how the noise around a franchise starts to matter more than the movies that form the franchise. The first Cloverfield was a proto-millennial odyssey about yuppies chasing love through a wrecked Manhattan—a docudrama, if you pretend the monster is SantaCon. 10 Cloverfield Lane was a tense locked-room thriller deadending in a Molotov-cocktail explosionfest. We talk less about these specific films than the advertised promise of the Cloverfield brand. This is the paragon of producer J.J. Abrams’ “mystery box” method, less a storytelling style than an advertorial genre: the tease toward something larger, as if story itself was a conspiracy to theorize over.

On Sunday, The Cloverfield Paradox was announced in a commercial during the Super Bowl. A few Boston-demoralizing hours later, it was streaming. The sudden arrival was hailed as boundary-busting, a way of cutting through the usual Hollywood system.

In fact, Paradox is a product of multiple systems. It was financed by century-old Paramount Pictures, and released on Netflix, the modern nexus between California’s entertainment and technology industries. Also: A Super Bowl media buy costs more than some Best Picture nominees. A counternarrative started to take hold. Had the studio dumped Paradox? It’s not revolutionary for a bad film to skip theaters. And Paramount released Baywatch on the big screen, so how bad could Paradox be?

Well, it’s a horror film where nothing scary happens for a reason, an ensemble picture starring fine actors playing cardboard-cutout space doofs, a monster movie where the monster appears just long enough to tease a sequel you’ve already seen. Most bad space horror movies give each character one recognizable character trait. Paradox has many characters, few traits. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is mourning her children, which is all anyone does in space after Gravity and Interstellar. Chris O’Dowd is Irish, so he keeps joking even after he loses his arm. The arm reappears as a separate character, the film’s one note of ghoulish delight. When the arm reappears, it has a mind of its own, so that makes one brain onboard. Performers like David Oyelowo, Zhang Ziyi, Daniel Bruhl, and the great John Ortiz stand around in uniforms waiting for the curtain call. And Elizabeth Debicki plays a character whose motivations are boringly shrouded behind a final-act twist, a peculiar Bad Robot specialty imported from the last couple Star Trek movies.

God help anyone coming to this movie looking for solutions to lingering Cloverfield mysteries. In summation: “Monsters from where? Space dimensions, that’s what!” The cruel paradox of The Cloverfield Paradox is that it’s fun to discuss everything about the movie except the movie. The Beyoncé-ish release method cuts through the noise: from announcement to release to backlash to counter-backlash to blissful forgetting, all in the time it takes Logan Paul to make one terrible video. Director Julius Onah and his cast represent a diverse array of backgrounds, and for too long cinematic science fiction has been the last refuge of white dudery. So Paradox is an optimistic window into a better world to come, one where anyone from anywhere can make their own bad space movie.

I want to praise Mbatha-Raw, O’Dowd, and O’Dowd’s arm, the only three performers in Paradox who get to play anything other than slasher-film chumpery. But I’m also drawn to Roger Davies’ earthbound Michael. He texts some people. He calls some other people. He spends the entire movie on the phone; he seems to be reacting to the events of another movie. It’s a wink, or an accidental admission: Everything about The Cloverfield Paradox feels designed to get you back on your phone, reacting to everything except the lame characters, the logic-free story, and the sub–Event Horizon scares.

It reminds me of the most haunting moment from the original Cloverfield. Everyone remembers the head of Lady Liberty, flung decapitated onto a Manhattan street corner. That’s the money shot from the trailer. But the actual film lingers on that scene, watching the onlookers pull out what we used to call “camera phones,” not believing what they see until they can take a picture of it. That’s a moment of pure cinematic poetry. In one second, it catches so much about our own decade: The feeling of apocalypse, and the simultaneous feeling of our attention splintering into infinity, every person their own little god particle.

And now, ten years later, The Cloverfield Paradox has become its own artifact, a model of modern platform-hopping chaos. Made for theaters, released on the internet, it only really came to life as a television commercial, promising answers to questions nobody ever asked. C–

The Cloverfield Paradox
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