Major spoilers for The Cloverfield Paradox below.
Movies are like skyscraper-sized monsters tearing through Manhattan: You generally know when one’s coming. Not so with Julius Onah’s The Cloverfield Paradox, which stunned the world’s geeks by being abruptly announced and released in the space of just a few hours on Sunday night. It’s the third film in the J.J. Abrams–produced Cloverfield franchise, which began almost exactly ten years ago with Matt Reeves’s Cloverfield and continued with 2016’s Dan Trachtenberg–helmed 10 Cloverfield Lane. In addition to their producer, the three films share a high-strung aesthetic and a deep love of pulp and genre storytelling — as well as an unabated desire to stick the landing.
The trio of flicks all try to outdo themselves in their final moments. The raw emotion of Cloverfield’s last scene is not easily forgotten, nor is 10 Cloverfield Lane’s stunning twist and subsequent fight scene. The Cloverfield Paradox takes a kind of middle ground between the two: In its last few minutes, it first gives us a monologue about love and hope, then punches us in the gut with 41 seconds of concluding horror. That tonal whiplash leaves a lasting mark on your brain, but leaves us with two questions that are up for debate: How the movie ties in to the rest of the Cloverfield franchise, and how well it works as a conclusion to the wild ride that is the rest of the picture.
The answer to the first query may seem obvious by the time Netflix suggests that you start watching Altered Carbon, but take caution before you leap to conclusions. Before we go any further, let’s recap what happens in Paradox’s wrap-up. Few crew members from the Cloverfield space station remain as we enter the penultimate scenes. Irritable Volkov (Aksel Hennie) and jovial Mundy (Chris O’Dowd) were both victims of paranormal occurrences, monolingual Tam (Zhang Ziyi) got flash-frozen in a hull breach, and stoic Kiel (David Oyelowo) took one for the team in an effort to stabilize the fast-disintegrating station. Only Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Schmidt (Daniel Brühl), Monk (John Ortiz), and Jensen (Elizabeth Debicki) remain.
After all the technical mishegoss they’ve gone through, the survivors figure out a way to replicate the experiment that sent them into an alternate dimension in the first place. In Kiel’s absence, Hamilton assumes control of the station and lays out a plan: She and Jensen will take a pod down to Jensen’s war-torn alternate Earth, along with instructions for how to operate a functioning Shepard module; after that, Monk and Schmidt will fire up the Shepard once to return to their home dimension, then another time to accomplish their initial mission of creating a free-energy production system. Easy, peasy, lemon-squeezy.
Well, actually, more like difficult, difficult, lemon-difficult. Jensen steals the gun that Volkov 3D-printed earlier in the film (which is a real thing, by the way), walks to the pod, knocks Hamilton out with a blow to the head, sets the pod to eject on a timer, and walks back into the station. Turns out she has a plan of her own: Keep the Shepard in her own dimension at any cost. See, she knows that her world is doomed without that sweet, sweet energy, and doesn’t think the folks down there could build a new Shepard in any reasonable amount of time. She fatally shoots Monk to get his firing key, then shoots Schmidt, though he doesn’t die. Hamilton wakes up, realizes what’s going on, and has to make a major decision: Go visit the alternate-dimension versions of her kids and save them from the fire that killed those of her universe, or go save the people of her home dimension from Jensen’s plot. She opts for the latter, of course, and fights off Jensen, ultimately killing her.
Hamilton records a message for her alternate-dimension self about the importance of (a) preventing home fires and (b) telling your family how much you love them every single day. She and Schmidt fire up the Shepard to get home, then fire it up again to turn on the juice for all the people of the world. They get in a pod to come back to the planet and it seems like everything’s gonna be just fine. Then we cut to Hamilton’s husband, Michael, who’s down in the bunker with little Molly. He gets a phone call from Joe at mission control, saying they’ve gotten back in touch with the Cloverfield and that Hamilton and Schmidt are on their way. Michael, to the viewer’s surprise, is not happy about this.
“Do they know what’s happening here?” he asks Joe, who says they lost contact before they could relay this mysterious information. Michael stands bolt upright and says, “You’re having her come back to these things?” He starts shouting. “Tell them not to come back! Tell them not to come back! Tell them not to come back! Do you hear me? Tell them not to come back!” It’s the last dialogue of the film. In the final few seconds, the pod falls through the clouds of Earth and the camera stabilizes above those clouds. There’s a pause. Then an impossibly enormous monster bursts through the cloud cover and roars its ugly face off. Cut to black.
Your first instinct is to go, “Oh, so that was all a prequel to Cloverfield! It’s the original monster again!” Not so fast. They have a similar visual aesthetic, what with all the tumor-like growths, the bug eyes, and the milky complexion. But Clover (that was the name of the Cloverfield creature) wasn’t anywhere near that tall, and had a differently shaped head. “But wasn’t there something about a piece of metal falling into the ocean in Cloverfield? Couldn’t that have been the pod?” you may ask. Yes, some of the found footage showed something careening into the Atlantic near Coney Island, but that footage was taken before Clover showed up, so the timeline doesn’t work out.
“Okay, but what about 10 Cloverfield Lane,” you might be saying. “Remember how that was about an invasion of horrifying creatures? What if they were let loose by the rip in reality created by the Cloverfield Paradox that Donal Logue’s character was talking about earlier?” I suppose it’s possible, but the big issue there is that Lane didn’t depict a world that was suffering from a global energy crisis and that was regularly looking skyward for salvation from a space station. John Goodman’s survivalist character from Lane would almost certainly have rambled on about that at length, so we’re probably not in that version of the world, either. No, this seems to be an entirely unique environment that just shares the apocalyptic feel and monster-movie fixations of the previous two (as well as a little hood ornament on the station that consists of a guy holding a cup of Slusho, a product that has appeared many times in Abrams properties).
So that leaves us with the other question: Was the ending any good? I’d say it was a mixed bag. The monologue about holding your loved ones felt a bit saccharine and predictable in a movie that was on fire when it abandoned sentimentality and surprised us at turn after turn. Then again, it’s probably the kind of message one would leave for oneself in such a wacky situation, if only because you’re at a loss for something more profound to say. I have to also lodge a complaint and say it was really improbable that the Shepard would work after all the damage done to the ship, but that’s a quibble.
Other than that, the final act is a crackerjack display of rising tension and meaty moral choices — after all, who can blame Jensen for turning on these people she doesn’t really know and who are condemning her world to death, despite their good intentions? And those final 41 seconds are, as the kids say, chef kiss. The image of that beast, alone, is enough to inspire nightmares (just think about what it would look like to see a monster taller than the freaking clouds).
But we also get a spiritual sequel to Jack’s famous “We have to go back!” moment from the end of Lost season four: A complete reversal of the goal that we’ve been rooting for throughout the story up until that point. It felt very Abrams-y while still being a testament to Onah’s directorial skills and the writing of Oren Uziel and Doug Jung. And hey, if you didn’t like it, the next Cloverfield movie is coming up in just a few months, so you can wash the taste out of your mouth quite soon. If we’re all in the same dimension by then, let’s reconvene and have another chat, shall we?