At least now we know why Paramount Pictures decided to sell this third entry in the Cloverfield horror/sci-fi series to Netflix after bumping its release date three times in the past year: it kind of sucks. The Cloverfield Paradox, which began life in 2012 as God Particle before being folded into producer J.J. Abrams’ loosely connected ongoing franchise, is barely worth the hype generated by its surprise premiere on Netflix right after the Super Bowl on Sunday night. The film’s unexpected arrival — after rumors surfaced last week that the struggling Hollywood studio was shoving it off to the streaming giant — was clearly meant to create excitement before anyone could really watch this thing.
Directed generically by first-timer Julius Onah from a script by Oren Uziel, The Cloverfield Paradox follows the same basic plotline that was first floated for the mysterious project years ago: a space station orbiting above the Earth attempts to power up a particle accelerator in an effort to create a vast reserve of free energy for the depleted, desperate planet below (don’t bother trying to follow the science). Of course, something goes wrong with the experiment — which they’ve been trying to get right for two years — and the crew of six, led by Kiel (David Oyelowo) and Ava (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), find to their horror that the Earth has disappeared.
The fate of the planet and what the particle accelerator experiment has wrought are barely important: The Cloverfield Paradox is a series of scenes and ideas lifted from numerous other movies all in search of a coherent plot and meaningful characters. Viewers familiar with recent and older sci-fi outings like Sunshine, Europa Report, Event Horizon, Gravity, and others will see rehashed ideas from all of those in this film, which trots all this out with great portent yet offers only a weak spin on the material. Reports of the movie being reworked extensively by Abrams and his Bad Robot team leave us wondering what they had to deal with in the first place, since the final product is so lackluster.
The cast seems lost in this mush, either spouting stiff exposition, running endlessly down corridors or fighting each other for reasons never fully justified or explained. Mbatha-Raw, Oyelowo, and Daniel Bruhl all manage to escape with some dignity, despite the thinness of their characters, while Chris O’Dowd spouts some exceptionally unfunny comic relief and get upstaged by his own severed arm in one unintentionally hilarious scene. Material clearly shot later — involving the husband (Roger Davies) that Ava left behind on Earth — is meant to tie this to the previous Cloverfield films in a way that comes across as forced and inorganic (some voiceover earlier in the film is meant to achieve this as well).
Some of the movie’s visuals are well executed and cinematographer Dan Mindel shoots it all with great beauty and precision, at least making the film relatively handsome to look at. Bear McCreary’s score, on the other hand, is overbearing and intrusive, working feverishly to create suspense and drama where there is none. If it wasn’t for the fairly high production values and the decent caliber of the cast, The Cloverfield Paradox would be an instant candidate for a direct-to-cable or VOD release — it’s that unrelentingly mediocre.
The sad thing is that it retroactively brings down what was turning into an interesting franchise: the first Cloverfield told an epic, eerie monster tale in intimate terms through found footage, while 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane was a gripping exercise in paranoia, claustrophobia, and tension populated by three strong characters. The Cloverfield Paradox plays like something you might find unspooling late at night on Showtime or Cinemax, unloaded by a production company no one has ever heard of. It certainly casts doubt on the acumen of Netflix’s creative brain trust, following other highly touted misfires like Death Note and Bright. The only real paradox here is that something so poorly executed could come out of such seemingly powerhouse content providers.
The Cloverfield Paradox is streaming on Netflix now.