The Cloverfield Paradox (2019)

The discourse around Cloverfield films has largely been a product of the hype and intrigue meticulously built by producer J.J. Abrams. Thus, it was little surprise when the The Cloverfield Paradox, the third of these movies — which had an enigmatic production, a banger of a working title (“The God Particle”), and an unconventional surprise release on Netflix — premiered with enormous buzz. The preceding two Cloverfield films were well reviewed, so why couldn’t a third be great? But The Cloverfield Paradox was outright panned — it sits at 22% on Rotten Tomatoes.

I approach this film on the other side of the horizon. The critics drubbed the film as “dumb trash.” Imagine my surprise when I watched it and found that it is… well, okay, dumb trash. But it’s fun dumb trash — and that makes all the difference in the world.

Recently, we’ve been starved for enjoyably cheesy, faux-cerebral sci-fi epics. For example, the yawn-inducing 65 promised space travelers battling dinosaurs but devolved into a generic escort mission movie without any of the goofy brain-benders the opening fifteen minutes suggest. By contrast, I found myself savoring every absurd twist and turn offered by The Cloverfield Paradox.

Much like 10 Cloverfield Lane, this film’s narrative runs parallel to the original Cloverfield. However, Paradox hints that it might tie more directly into the overarching kaiju alien conspiracy of the 2008 original. Like with 10 Cloverfield Lane, I think tying it to the original Cloverfield does not improve the story: The weakest aspects of Paradox are those that insinuate a connection between the Cloverfield monster and its spaceship storyline, never ultimately providing any definitive answers (or even satisfying ambiguity). It’s abundantly clear that the Cloverfield franchise was appended in a late script revision, with little regard for the core narrative of the draft.

The Cloverfield Paradox is set on a space station, where the crew attempts to carry out a sci-fi MacGuffin task, purportedly providing infinite energy to Earth via sci-fi babble quantum wizardry. The procedure, alas, risks the accidental opening of portals to alternate dimensions. The crew, including our protagonist, the engineer Ava (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), flips on the switch and the operations appears to succeed until a power surge destabilizes the station. When the systems reboot, they discover that… Earth has disappeared! Holy shit! This is the first of the movie’s delightful and goofy twists, though the majoriy of the rest take place within the confines of the space station.

The crew, portrayed by a diverse and talented cast, is a highlight of the film. Alongside Mbatha-Raw’s Ava, we’re introduced to physicist Ernst (Daniel Bruhl), medical doctor Monk (John Ortiz), ship captain Jason (David Oyelowo), and engineers Gordon (Chris O’Dowd), Ling (Zhang Ziyi), and Sasha (Aksel Hennie).

One of the film’s quirks is its shifting tones. Gordon, played by O’Dowd, offers some curveball comedy that I found charming, perfectly undercutting the intense multiverse ponderings. He is subject to some of the silliest of the movie’s shenanigans.

Beyond its sci-fi action cheese, the film also packs a surprising emotional punch. Amidst the alternate universe gimmick, Ava — mourning the loss of her children — grapples with a new and profound pain: The realization her tragedy might not have been inevitable. Mbatha-Raw delivers the emotional material very well.

The weakest of the film’s subplots featuring Ava’s husband Michael (Roger Davies), who is dealing with the Cloverfield disaster back on Earth. This narrative thread feels phoned-in and superficial, culminating in a stinger story beat that feels so much like a Lost episode cliffhanger that I might have guessed Abrams’ involvement even without prior knowledge.

The addition of an alternate universe layer also injects an intriguing layer of suspense. When it is revealed that a character sabotaged the project in one universe, it immediately raises questions just how much that carries over in the “main” universe. With the characters doubting each other and contained within a space station, there are some hints of The Thing.

As fun as I found the movie, it is on the shallow side. Ava is the only character with any sort of arc. The majority of the cast seems to exist solely to fall victim to the various reality-altering twists of the movie.

Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed The Cloverfield Paradox. The film certainly leans on genre tropes, but its inventive and unhinged spirit offers a genuinely entertaining watch. Although it lacks the seriousness of the previous Cloverfield films and may be disadvantaged by its connection to the franchise, I view it as a success in its own right.

Is It Good?

Good (5/8)

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