At about 30 minutes into The Cloverfield Paradox, I had one of those moments that often comes along when I’m watching an entertaining bit of genre filmmaking. I took a moment to appreciate how much I was enjoying the experience by mentally telling myself, “I am really into this.” Then, as is often the case with most storytelling, the plot of the movie had to kick in, and things started to go a little haywire. By the end, it was clear just how much of a disaster this movie was. Its plot is nonsensical to the point of being moronic. At least some of Paradox’s coherence problem was made worse because the producers – most notably J.J. Abrams – decided to tie this stand-alone sci-fi movie into the Cloverfield series during filming. This led to the film’s writer, Oren Uziel, penning new scenes and rewriting others, and the director, Julius Onah, shooting those changes in order to make Paradox – originally titled God Particle – fit into the Cloverfield universe. The result is an utter mess of a movie.
As messy and incoherent as The Cloverfield Paradox is, I still enjoyed it. It would be cold comfort, no doubt, to those who made the movie learning that I enjoyed it in a so-bad-it’s-good sort of way. This is sci-fi/horror schlock that almost redeems itself because of good performances and superior production design. It might have been destined to become an instant cult classic had the cast and crew turned into the skid to make it as campy as possible, but only one actor, Chris O’Dowd, seems committed to taking that path. So, while I was able to latch onto those elements that make it laughably bad, I understand anyone who comes away from Paradox thinking it’s, well, just bad.
The story is set in a vague near-future. Earth’s entire population is experiencing a power shortage. This results in long lines at gas stations, near constant blackouts, and the threat of societal chaos. Humanity has one last hope of solving the energy crisis. A team of astronauts aboard Cloverfield Station are running tests of the Shepard particle accelerator in the hopes of supplying earth with an infinite source of energy. After two years of failure, the team is ready to give up hope. They only have enough power for three more tests. Then, the crew member in charge of the accelerator, Schmidt, achieves a “stable beam,” whatever that means, and it appears that earth’s problems are solved. The Shepard experiences an overload during the test, however, causing the entire station to lose power. When the crew gets the lights back on, they are horrified to discover the earth is gone.
Do the words Large Hadron Collider ring a bell? That’s the particle collider where scientists discovered the Higgs boson, nicknamed the God Particle, in experiments conducted between 2011 and 2013. If you remember the LHC, you probably remember the breathless news stories from that time written about it. It’s the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, and the physicists there hoped their work would uncover previously unknown details about physics and the origins of the universe.
The more alarmist Chicken Little journalists wrote stories about the possibility of tests at the LHC creating a black hole that might rip the earth apart and kill us all. I have to imagine some of these stories gave Uziel the idea for his original script, God Particle, which was announced as an official project by Paramount in November of 2012. A massive particle accelerator causes all the problems in the film, after all, and there is one off-handed reference in the script to the Higgs boson. There are no black holes wreaking havoc in Paradox, but Uziel used his imagination to create a scenario every bit as fantastic.
The only problem is that little of it makes any sense. Uziel thinks the pseudoscience gobbledygook he throws at us allows him free reign to include all manner of bizarre, horrific episodes on board the space station. That’s why we get one crew member, the Russian Volkov, turning evil with no explanation other than he was the resident jerk in the beginning scenes of the movie. Volkov is seemingly infected by some nefarious force, but that plot thread is never fully explored. His right eye just starts moving on its own, and he inexplicably ingests pounds of worms (the presence of which are never explained, either) that are kept on board the ship, only to spew them out later.
Another scene involves a crew member named Mundy, played by the aforementioned O’Dowd, having his arm sucked into the wall of the space station and cut in half. Somehow Mundy isn’t bleeding, he doesn’t even seem to be in any real pain, but any thoughts you might have about that drift away when the crew finds the severed arm. It acts exactly like Thing, the sentient hand in The Addams Family, and it helps out the crew by writing a vital bit of information for them once they give it a pen.
O’Dowd is clearly having the most fun in Paradox. He seems to be the only one that realizes just how bad the movie he’s working on will be. When one crew member asks if Mundy is controlling the severed arm, O’Dowd deadpans the biggest laugh of the movie. He says he’s not controlling it, and when asked how he knows for sure, he says it’s because he’s giving the questioning crew member the finger, but the arm isn’t doing the same. O’Dowd also gets gems like this: “What are you talking about, Arm?” and “Hey guys, check out my arm. I think my arm is trying to write something.”
On the production side, director Onah and his visual effects team did a fantastic job of making this indecipherable mess look beautiful. All the computer-generated effects involving space, the orbiting station, and the horrific goings-on inside of it are brilliantly conceived and executed. Onah, too, does a nice job of creating an ominous mood, even when what’s happening on screen becomes more and more ridiculous. It’s that mood, akin to a movie like Alien, that had me so entranced before things started to fall apart.
The Cloverfield Paradox actually has more in common with another exercise in space-based sci-fi/horror, but it’s not a picture with the prestigious reputation of a movie like Alien. If you enjoy the 1997 schlockfest Event Horizon, especially in a guilty pleasure sort of way, The Cloverfield Paradox promises to deliver the same level of laughably bad, I-can’t-believe-what-I’m-watching entertainment.
Why it got 2 stars:
- This movie is a whole lot of dumb fun. But, it's also poorly conceived and, with the exception of how it looks and the actors' talent, poorly executed. My biggest fear is that since The Cloverfield Paradox is such a huge disaster, it will derail the entire Cloverfield franchise. The second movie in the series, 10 Cloverfield Lane, made my top 10 of 2016. I had really high hopes for where things would go from there.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- After seeing the final product, Paramount came to the conclusion that they would never make a profit on this movie with a traditional theatrical release. So, they went to Netflix, to see if they would bite, and they did, to the tune of 50 million dollars. This makes Netflix look bad. They want to be known as producing and acquiring original content that is of high quality. This move makes it look like Netflix is the dumping ground for losers that the major studios need to get off their hands.
- The marketing campaign for The Cloverfield Paradox consisted of one surprise Super Bowl ad. announcing that the movie would be available for streaming on Netflix immediately following the game. Abrams, and Netflix, claimed they chose this near zero marketing campaign because it would be "fun," and it would be in keeping with a similar approach for 10 Cloverfield Lane. Word then soon got out that they did it to beat the bad press about the movie.
- The Cloverfield Paradox also feels like a giant missed opportunity because it has an incredibly diverse cast, and was helmed by a person of color. Those are things worthy of praise. David Oyelowo and Gugu Mbatha-Raw deliver spectacular performances, especially when you consider the material they were given.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- Netflix, so I enjoyed this from the comfort and solitude of my couch. I'm willing to bet, though, that the special effects sequences would have been incredible on the big screen. Rach checked out of this one after about 15 minutes.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
I've read nothing but stellar things about the new Marvel movie, Black Panther. Next week I'll set down my own reaction to it. This will be my first Ryan Coogler film, and I'm looking forward to it.