There’s a whole lot of things about the surprise release of The Cloverfield Paradox tonight that were shockingly brazen. It’s a sci-fi horror film from a relatively unknown director. It’s a film that had zero official promotion until midway through the second quarter of Super Bowl 52. It was announced to the world in a single, 30-second ad for the cost of $5 million dollars, which was NBC’s going rate for 2018. It features a multiracial, multi-ethnic ensemble cast without any bankable Hollywood “stars” to speak of. It’s everything that a traditional studio wouldn’t dare put this kind of promotional push behind. Ava DuVernay might have said it best:
So with all that said: Is it any good? Well, yes—often it is, but it’s sometimes tough to find those moments. The Cloverfield Paradox can’t ever fully shed the reality that it was never intended to be a part of the “Cloververse,” and its attempts to connect itself concretely with the events of the first film are both misguided and illogical, but when we’re able to simply enjoy the premise it presents us with, this movie is equal parts thrilling and utterly batshit crazy.
Let me first say this: The fact that this film could give itself the “Cloverfield” name is obviously the reason we’re watching it today. The clout of J.J. Abrams can’t be overlooked, from his contributions to both Star Trek and Star Wars to his work as a producer. You can feel the desire in this film to tangibly tie itself to the original Cloverfield as a marketing tactic first and foremost, the result of some suit in a boardroom deciding that the answer to “why” the first film happened was an effective hook to put butts in the seat (or on the couch, in this case). It’s a much more cynical approach than in the well-liked (and ultimately superior) 10 Cloverfield Lane, which at no point ever officially connected itself with the giant monster story of the original Cloverfield. This one, on the other hand, is a little too desperate to get that connection across, even when it explicitly does not make sense. In particular, it seems impossible that this film, set in the distant future, could somehow have led to the events of the first film … which was set in 2008.
Ultimately, though, those Cloverfield tie ins are just a framing device—an excuse to be able to get this movie in front of millions of eyes on Super Bowl Sunday. This isn’t a movie about giant monsters; it’s a movie about mad particle physics and scientific derring-do. And that film is quite a lot of fun, although it never quite settles on a specific tone to convey.
Our viewpoint character is Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a communications engineer who is a crew member of the advanced Cloverfield space station, which is attempting to test proof of concept in a massive particle accelerator that they hope will solve an energy crisis on Earth that is rapidly leading superpowers toward war—which we mostly discover through awkward expositional dialog. She’s joined by a multinational crew, including German physicist Schmidt (Daniel Brühl, currently getting spotlighted in TNT’s The Alienist), Russian engineer Volkov (Aksel Hennie), American captain Kiel (David Oyelowo) and Chinese engineer Tam (Zhang Ziyi). Unsurprisingly, after something goes terribly wrong, the crew gradually begins to realize the inherent dangers of toying about with science that can affect the space-time continuum. All of this happens aboard a spectacularly designed space station, and space sets that rival anything seen in recent, higher-budget films such as Passengers.
Like the previously referenced Passengers, though, the film does suffer from some tonal whiplash from time to time. We’re introduced to the story as a drama, with a great deal of focus on Hamilton’s life, her husband and the source of the grief she carries. After the accident, we suddenly shift into a sci-fi horror vibe, as if the ship has crossed over into the hellish dimension from Event Horizon. That might make sense if that tone was carried on throughout, but it then morphs yet again in the third act to more of a sci-fi action movie, once again reminding one of the superfluous final 30 minutes of Passengers.
However, when The Cloverfield Paradox is firing on all cylinders, especially in its second act, it’s not quite like anything else I’ve ever seen. Gory and harrowing, but simultaneously propped up by a streak of deadpan gallows humor (especially from Chris O’Dowd), it revels in its freedom to do whatever it wants without ever stopping to consider the need for an explanation. It looks great doing so, and there’s more than one sequence that will have audience members asking “What in the hell is happening?”
At the same time, though, The Cloverfield Paradox also feels like a love letter to speculative fiction, science fiction and the horror genre itself. It is absolutely studded with references and scenes that evoke films both good and bad. To name only a handful: Poltergeist, Evil Dead 2, Moon, Another Earth, Alien, Event Horizon and even Alien Resurrection seem to receive clear callbacks. We may not have seen much from director Julius Onah before, but this guy has clearly spent a lot of time in the multiplex.
In the end, the portions of The Cloverfield Paradox that perplex are also the ones you’re most likely to retain in your imagination afterward. It’s easy to see why studio execs at Paramount were unsure of how to market this movie, as it seemingly attempts to check so many boxes at once that nearly any description is going to fail to accurately convey the experience of watching it. Ultimately, it’s that unstable, unpredictable nature that is simultaneously its most entertaining and most problematic aspect.
But is it better than watching whatever lame sitcom that network TV is attempting to foist on you after the Super Bowl? That it most certainly is. So … thanks, Netflix?
Director: Julius Onah
Writer: Oren Uziel
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Daniel Bruhl, Zhang Ziyi, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris O’Dowd
Release date: Streaming now, Netflix
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter.