This review contains minor spoilers for The Cloverfield Paradox.
Congratulations to Netflix and Bad Robot for taking a so-so genre sequel and turning it into a surprise television EVENT that had nerds and those of us tasked to cover their buying habits (the main job of criticism these days, it seems) staying up past midnight EST for fear of missing something big.
There was nothing eventful about the movie itself, The Cloverfield Paradox, apart from at times recalling the better sci-fi thriller Event Horizon, but it did have an entertaining first hour and an excellent international cast. Its chief problem was an abrupt shift in emphasis, whereby what had been the story of a scientific conundrum (paradox, if you will) turned into yet another stop-the-stalking-killer movie. Solving the scientific problem ended up a relatively simple task, at least in this installment. For the ongoing saga, there are still some colossal issues.
A few words about that saga: It began with Cloverfield, the title of a meaningless Bad Robot placeholder (it’s a street) that turned into an in-joke. The larger joke was that the filmmakers were telling the kind of a story associated with spectacle — giant monster attacks metropolis — from the subjective vantage of a lone video camera à la the intimate The Blair Witch Project. It was no big deal but it worked well enough. A sequel of sorts, 10 Cloverfield Lane, was a tight little subterranean psychological thriller in which a young woman’s captor (John Goodman) is either m-m-mad or a savior — or possibly both.
The novel thing about the Cloverfield sequels is they don’t use the same characters, and until the very end you’re not sure how they fit together. The Cloverfield Paradox is actually a retrofit. It purports to explain why Bad Things Happened to Our Good Planet. It begins with the news that the world has run out of energy, leading to “oil wars” — though this seems strangely quaint for a 2018 sci-fi movie, given that man-made climate change is likely to wreak deadly havoc long before we hit “peak oil.” (Peak water, on the other hand …)
The solution is for a multinational team of astronauts to head into space on the Cloverfield and then launch a giant device called “the Shepard” — presumably named for astronaut Alan but with Biblical overtones however it’s spelled. The Shepard, someone explains, will “unlock an endless supply of power that can save us all.” But on TV there’s a bearded scientist (Donal Logue) hawking a book called The Cloverfield Paradox who says that if the particle accelerator’s tech tech splits the tech it could tech tech a tech tech to another dimension, unleashing demons.
I use “tech” in the spirit of the old Star Trek: TNG writers who used to put down, “We have to [tech] [tech] the [tech],” and then let actual science types substitute the correct terms. For The Cloverfield Paradox they seem to have had few such experts and so consulted Astrophysics for Dummies. The overall point is that bad stuff happens when man tampers in God’s domain, to cite Ed Wood’s immortal Bride of the Monster. The specific problem is with the potential dissolution of boundaries within the multiverse — a boon to mystery-thriller writers who’ve run out single-universe twists and now can take red herrings from other dimensions. (“Single universe” is, being uni-, redundant, but I didn’t realize that until researching the multiverse. You learn stuff in this job.)
None of this, however, is the main emotional thrust, which centers on old-fashioned, down-to-earth grief. The protagonist, Hamilton (the talented Gugu Mbatha-Raw, best known for Belle and Beyond the Lights and soon to be seen in A Wrinkle in Time), is in mourning for her dead children and hasn’t succeeded in forming a support group with Sandra Bullock, Amy Adams, and other recent sci-fi heroines who’ve lost kids. With her doctor husband (Roger Davies) many thousands of miles below, she rests her head on a giant video panel bearing the image of her radiant lost family — overdramatic but reemployed to good advantage in the climax.
Her fellow astronauts constitute a hugely impressive group of actors, among them Daniel Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl, John Ortiz, Chris O’Dowd (Ireland’s answer to our Michael Shannon — he’s in, like, everything), Aksel Hennie, and everyone’s favorite young female swordsperson, Zhang Ziyi. A nice touch is that Ziyi speaks Chinese only, but that isn’t a problem since everyone else speaks it, too. (You and I better get busy.) Not all communication is so fluid. The Russian tussles with the German, whom he accuses of either incompetence or sabotage — which prompts Hamilton to ask if they can’t keep their shit together up there, how will Earthlings get along? Just wait.
Prominent in the cast list is Elizabeth Debicki, who pops up reasonably late in the film encoiled in the innards of the Cloverfield and has an uncanny knowledge of the ship. Is she an alien? Could be. The actress is very tall, with the longest fingers I’ve seen on a homo sapien, and her manner is abstracted. Her arrival comes along with some odd happenings, among them the disappearance of a bunch of science-lab worms, a gyroscope, and — oh yes — Earth. All of those things will come back, some of them in exceptionally gross ways.
The Nigerian-born director Julius Onah is extremely skillful. The screen is loaded with colorful sci-fi bric-a-brac but the frames are nonetheless spacious. He knows how to keep the camera in motion without being a hot dog about it. The movie starts to get exciting — conceptually — when Debicki arrives, and there are great sight gags pegged to a detached arm that ought to have teamed up with The Addams Family’s Thing for their own buddy-cop series.
But then things come screeching to a halt. No, that’s exactly wrong. Things speed up too quickly, meaning just when the movie’s rhythms should become loopier and the action more eccentric, The Cloverfield Paradox becomes one more formulaic ticking-clock series of chases and shootings with a moral dilemma for pathos and then uplift. The dunderheaded ending involves a character yelling, “Don’t come back!” as if people in a spaceship with limited power have anywhere else to go — Mars? Endor? LV426? The problem with retrofits is that they can’t spiral off in entertaining new directions. They have to come crashing back to Franchise-Land. Next up: the surprise release of the sure-to-be-best-selling The Cloverfield Diet.