Reality as we know it is in a state of flux. Movies once destined for the silver screen – like Alex Garland’s Annihilation – are landing instead on Netflix, at least in Europe. God Particle, a film once thought scheduled for a theatrical release this April, has instead made a surprise landing on Netflix – after a reveal trailer emerged during the Super Bowl – under its new title, The Cloverfield Paradox. The less said about the political landscape, the better.
Maybe it’s only fitting, for these strange times, that The Cloverfield Paradox itself sees reality thrown into chaos, like Futurama’s What If machine on jukebox mode. Directed by Julius Onah, this is the second spin-off from 2008’s Cloverfield, which was joined by Dan Trachtenberg’s unexpectedly taut 10 Cloverfield Lane. But where the latter movie, released in 2016, found plenty of mileage in a single, basement location – aided by great performances from Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman – The Cloverfield Paradox shoots for something rather more wide-ranging and grandiose, and doesn’t quite hit its mark.
Taking place just before Cloverfield’s events, The Cloverfield Paradox attempts to explain where exactly all those monsters from the other movies came from. A global energy shortage has left the planet on the brink of both war and starvation; to solve the crisis, scientists build a huge particle accelerator on an orbiting space station – the hope being that, if enough particles are smashed together, a inexhaustible energy supply will spontaneously emerge. As the switch-on day arrives. a fringe author warns that all the particle smashing could rip a whole in time and space, unleashing a torrent of monsters and demons.
Written by Oren Uziel (22 Jump Street, Shimmer Lake), The Cloverfield Paradox heaps all kinds of ideas into its story, from Gravity-style survival to Cronenbergian body horror to Solaris-esque moments of paranoia and regret. Holding everything together is a rock-solid cast, which includes Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Ava, the British member of the international crew aboard the Cloverfield space station – she’s joined by Daniel Bruhl, David Oyelowo, Chris O’Dowd and Zhang Ziyi, who play a few of the other experts who’ve spent about two years living cheek-by-jowl in Earth’s orbit.
Predictably, turning on the particle accelerator doesn’t go well for the crew, but the filmmakers don’t follow the typical monster-on-a-space-station route audiences might expect. Instead, the horrors that await the Cloverfield are surreal and often difficult to predict, ranging from vanishing limbs, unexpected showers of worms and a worrying deployment of 3D printers. For the first 45 minutes or so, Onah keeps the pot simmering as Ava and her crew lurch from crisis to crisis; Chris O’Dowd, and some distinct moments of black comedy in the script, also help to keep the plot from falling into a predictable rhythm.
Even here, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that The Cloverfield Paradox has emerged from two ideas smashed violently together. The threads that connect this film to the events of Cloverfield feel awkward at best or, at worst, completely unnecessary. The action occasionally cuts to Earth, where Ava’s husband, Michael (Roger Davies) drives around looking for stuff to do. Other than to remind us that monsters roamed the planet in the 2008 film, these scenes feel largely extraneous.
There are also plenty of signs that the movie went through some heavy re-edits before its Netflix debut. The characters are barely sketched in, and the opening credits show brief cuts of scenes that look like the last remaining traces of missing some missing characterisation. The quality of the production design and special effects varies wildly, too, from some great-looking sets to effects shots that, by big-screen standards at least, look somewhat rushed.
In this regard, it’s not hard to see why the powers that be opted to place The Cloverfield Paradox on Netflix rather than in cinemas. It certainly looks rather pale next to Daniel Espinosa’s hugely effective Life – a sci-fi horror that got far more mileage out of its space station setting, yet still didn’t make a huge impression at the box-office.
None of this is to say that there isn’t plenty to enjoy in The Cloverfield Paradox. Mbatha-Raw puts in a committed performance, and there are several sequences early on that are genuinely eerie. Indeed, the movie’s at its strongest when it makes the least sense; a scene involving an unearthly wailing coming from behind a wall is arguably the most powerful. When The Cloverfield Paradox puts aside surrealism in favour of a survival story, it quickly runs out of energy.
The Cloverfield Paradox is available to stream on Netflix now.