Movie Review: The Cloverfield Paradox.
While The Cloverfield Paradox has some cool moments, it struggles to distinguish itself from other recent sci-fi offerings.
A strange journey brings the third Cloverfield movie to Netflix. The film was repeatedly delayed and went through several working titles over the course of two years. Its status was so up in the air that I left it off of this year’s most anticipated list, despite the fact that it was on last years anticipated list. The project had seemingly gone dormant when suddenly the trailer dropped during the Super Bowl, announcing that the movie would be available to stream at the end of the game. In a franchise that has made its reputation based on weird twists and shocking reveals, it felt only natural.
Non-theatrical theatrics aside, The Cloverfield Paradox is an entertaining sci-fi horror film that suffers from over-familiarity. So many elements of the film feel like you’ve seen them before. A talented cast and a director with an eye for cool visuals can’t quite make this low orbit thriller stand out from the herd.
The Cloverfield Paradox.
Despite some very cool tech, humanity in the near future is headed for disaster. The depletion of our fossil fuel reserves has caused living standards to crumble and many of the superpower nations prepare for a disastrous war over what little oil is left. Science’s hail-mary is a space station named Cloverfield, which boasts the largest particle accelerator built by man. By harnessing the phenomenal power of quantum mechanics, the multi-national team aboard Cloverfield hope to create a source of unlimited energy…if only they can get it to work without punching a hole in the fabric of reality.
Cloverfield has become a franchise by infiltrating other genres and then doing crazy stuff with the expectations of that genre. The first film took found-footage horror and turned it into a giant monster movie. The second film took a thriller about being held prisoner and…turned it into a giant monster movie. This third outing takes a familiar science fiction horror story and (you guessed it) adds giant monsters to it. The problem here is that the giant monsters don’t add anything to the story or subvert your expectations. With Cloverfield in the title, you expect the monsters by now. They feel a bit perfunctory.
The science fiction elements of the story are fairly standard. People mess with nature and it goes poorly for the people. I enjoy that the tinkering this time is via particle physics, but its still at heart a Frankenstein story. The setting is also novel in concept only. The giant atom smasher in the sky is technically original, but after movies like Life, Gravity, and Interstellar, being on a space station doesn’t have nearly the novelty it might have had even 4 years ago. You get everything you expect from a horror thriller set in space, but you don’t get a whole lot more than that.
Eye in the Sky.
One thing going for Cloverfield is that it looks impressive. With the exception of the few sequences set on Earth, the film really leverages its SF trappings. Sure, we’ve been on a movie space station several times in the last decade, but Cloverfield still manages to look cool.
Another treat for the eyes are the creepy scares. The very fabric of reality is warped and potentially hostile, setting up some really nice sequences. Right off the bat we get some visually striking instances of body horror that would make John Carpenter proud. The plot leverages paranoia and claustrophobia effectively for most of the run-time. It doesn’t quite get to the same level of “you can’t trust anyone or anything” that The Thing or even 10 Cloverfield Lane accomplished, but it’s a solid level of background unease.
…Oh, and there’s a sentient disembodied arm that is used for both screams and laughs. Man, I loved that arm…
One problem I had with The Cloverfield Paradox and its inability to really innovate within the chosen genre is that the scientists wind up feeling like standard slasher flick victims. They’re not quite the screaming topless idiots you find at Crystal Lake camp, but they’re not exactly very astute when it comes to survival either. My biggest gripe is with the main protagonist, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is such a prototypical “last girl.” She spends most of the movie starring helplessly in horror at things and only shows any competence at the very end. It’s a lousy genre trope that sucks you right out of the experience, since you’re constantly yelling at her through your TV to “just do something already!”
The rest of the cast is solid but fairly cliched as well. After Selma, I kind of expected David Oyelowo to really blow me away, but his Captain Kiel is just your standard morally dependable space captain. From scheming Germans to hot-headed Russians, the characters here are not exactly breaking the mold. At least Zhang Ziyi got another big screen role after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as a Chinese scientist, but I kept expecting her do some kung-fu since everyone else was just a thin stereotype of their nationality.
The Cloverfield Paradox disappoints only because the series has shown it can really say and show something new and clever about familiar genres. The first Cloverfield isn’t a classic, but it really gave a shot in the arm to the tired found-footage genre while simultaneously making a cool giant monster flick. 10 Cloverfield Lane broke and confounded your expectations at every turn in ways that were astonishing. The Cloverfield Paradox really doesn’t do any of that.
This is a decent horror film set in space that never challenges the expectations inherent to the genre and winds up feeling overly familiar. As ambivalent as I was about Life, I have to say I got more out of that film when it came to sci-fi terror. There’s enough here to keep you watching, but I did wind up wondering if 10 Cloverfield Lane wasn’t a fluke. Here’s hoping that this franchise can come up with some mind bending innovation next time around.