The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

FEBRUARY 5, 2018


It's no secret that a number of franchise movies sprung from original scripts that were rewritten to accommodate an unrelated series. All of the Die Hard sequels (except for the last - and by far the worst - one, oddly enough) began life as other things; for example an original called "Simon Says" bounced around as a would-be sequel to Rapid Fire AND a potential Lethal Weapon 4 before becoming Die Hard With A Vengeance. Dimension has bought spec scripts and turned them into Hellraiser and Children of the Corn entries, with varying results of not-much-success, and when Lionsgate needed a Saw II ASAP after the monster success of the original, they reworked a script called "The Desperate" they were already looking at (with the writer, Darren Bousman, agreeing to do it if they let him direct - a bold gamble that paid off for everyone, since Saw II is the biggest moneymaker of the series). In all those cases, they clearly did a lot of work to make them "fit" (presumably, the original "Simon Says" script did not feature Hans Gruber's brother, for example), but when it comes to The Cloverfield Paradox, originally a script called God Particle, the connections are not only flimsy, but add confusion to a film with enough of its own problems.

Luckily we have 10 Cloverfield Lane to slightly prepare us for the former - that film was completely unrelated until its closing moments, and even then it was a pretty tenuous connection - the monster in the original Cloverfield did not resemble the ones we saw in Lane, suggesting that if they were indeed related, there must be some sort of Mist-level disaster that has unleashed multiple monsters on our planet. The Cloverfield Paradox, which debuted last night on Netflix in an unprecedented manner (more on that soon), more or less explains how this happened via a quick Skype cameo by a conspiracy theorist played by Donal Logue, but does so in a confusing and very vague manner that requires you to fill in the gaps yourself, with the caveat that you might be wrong since there is so little in the film(s) that supports it. Because of the success of the MCU and the Fast and Furious films (particularly when it comes to how Tokyo Drift came to be important), we're getting conditioned to believe that films in a franchise will ultimately "come together" with a big megamix of all the characters it has introduced, but that kind of thinking that will lead you astray if you apply it to this series.

Because (spoiler for the first 10 minutes ahead!) if I'm understanding the point of Logue's monologue correctly, these films (perhaps) all take place in different dimensions, with the common thread being monsters that take advantage of a rift in the universe caused by the actions of the characters in this film. The film's main plot is a Sunshine wannabe thing about a group of international space folk trying to save the planet with a space Macguffin (in this case the "Shepard", some sort of particle accelerator that will give the Earth unlimited energy, somehow), and when they fire up their beam it causes things to go screwy for them - they find themselves suddenly thrown into another dimension. So Logue was right about the catastrophic results, but he also tells us that using this thing will produce side effects, up to and including monsters and "beasts from the sea" being dropped into our world, and not limited to this time but in the past and future as well, so we can assume he was right about that, too. To me, after thinking about it for a bit, I realize he's basically saying to the audience "Stop looking for ways that these make sense as a series of connected films. Every one of them is from another universe, and all future entries will be too, because it allows us to keep taking unrelated scripts and making them into Cloverfield movies without having to worry about a "timeline" or "returning characters" or anything like that."

(The next one is set in World War II, for the record, so.)

Unfortunately, while 10 Cloverfield worked on its own (in fact, it's actually superior to the original), Paradox is kind of a bad movie with or without references to "Slusho" or whatever, and Logue's poorly implemented exposition dump isn't clear enough to differentiate what appears to be direct ties to the first film, which is also confusing viewers to boot. Without spoiling things, a scene near the film's very end features an object from space hurtling toward the Earth, which some people I've talked to believe is the same thing that crashed in the water in the first film (during the home video epilogue). It isn't, but since the ads tout that the film explains where the monster came from, it's easy to see why folks would think it was - and that's something producer JJ Abrams or really anyone else who worked on the film should have realized. Had the movie been good on its own, this sort of thing would be easier to shrug off, I suspect, but since it's such a letdown I think folks are trying to make more out of it than there actually is, to connect it to a film they love and therefore give it more reason for existing.

Sadly, it doesn't seem like Cloverfield-ing the movie was its only issue: someone clearly reworked the opening sequence quite a bit, offering a mostly silent montage (with a baffling number of shots where the actors are clearly speaking dialogue we were originally meant to hear) that shows us that our crew of world-savers have been up there for nearly two years, that their "Shepard" device is not working, and that they are starting to get on each other's nerves. Unfortunately we don't get much in the way of characterization for these people beyond hero Ava Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), so when they start fighting there's no reason to choose a side or even care at all, and the wordless montage doesn't exactly fully depict their frustration or cabin fever, rendering it largely useless in the grand scheme of things. We also don't know much about the world they're trying to save; we're told there's an energy crisis and a brimming World War of sorts, but it's all just say-so, and it seems the major drawback to the energy crisis (in the one scene set on Earth before Ava goes into space) is long lines at the gas station. And really, how bad can the energy crisis be if two years later - i.e. when things are presumably even worse - she's able to call her husband from space and talk to him in real time? Wouldn't that require energy/power of some sort? Wouldn't this kind of activity be one of the first thing that they deny people? Let's keep in mind that the energy crisis is so severe before she leaves for space that they steal a power supply to let their kids have a nightlight and it catches fire and kills them. Or let's not, since otherwise it's pretty stupid that both of these things happen in the same universe.

But that's exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about: the movie introduces a second universe when it was already having trouble making one believable enough to care about. That said, when the two universes collide the movie actually gets kind of fun for a bit, almost comically (intentionally!) so at times. There's a woman (Elizabeth Debicki) who in another universe is besties with Ava and is part of the crew, who gets fused to the ship during the universe-blending event, giving us a terrific, Cronenberg-y visual, with wires and pipes threaded through her in a way that is perfectly clear she didn't just get impaled on them in an accident. This also leads to her not trusting certain people because in her version they were traitors, and she's also best friends with Ava in her world where in this one she doesn't seem to exist at all (or at least, no one knows her the way she knows them). Also, Chris O'Dowd plays, more or less, Harry Dean Stanton's character from Alien, and is the best part of the movie even before he gets sucked into a wall and loses his arm when he is pulled out. But it's not "ripped off" or anything - he doesn't even feel pain from it, the wound is cauterized (even though someone says "it's like he was born that way", which doesn't match up to the visual, but by this point I already knew it was a bad movie), and a few minutes later they find his arm, moving around on its own like Thing from Addams Family - and it actually helps them solve the next crisis by writing a message, though not before O'Dowd delivers the movie's best line by a mile: "What are you talking about, arm?"

It's this sort of goofy/trippy thing that the movie really could have used more of, because it's such a total failure as a sci-fi film. Everything they do is vaguely defined, and all of the problems that arise (i.e. things that result in the body count rising, sometimes by via self-sacrifice) are only clear because we've seen them in other sci-fi movies (Sunshine, Event Horizon, Passengers...). There are some fun ideas, such as a character using a 3D printer (primarily used to make bagels) to make a gun, and I guess in the future cement putty has a sort of "app" doohickey that helps it spread over the required area, but everything seems like it was reverse engineered from an idea someone had, with no further explanation considered. There are even potentially interesting ideas and subplots that are brought up and never followed through on, like the fact that in Debicki's version of the crew, there was no Tam (Ziyi Zhang). She says this and we the accompanying "dun dun DUNNNN" kind of moment, but that's the beginning AND end of the matter. It never comes up again, except in your mind when you think "Wait, why did they bring that up? And why did they leave it IN, when the movie was clearly re-worked a bit?" All it does is tell us that things were different in their universe, but we already knew that. A friend told me this is to justify Debicki taking Zhang's job later in the movie, but with everyone so ill-defined, who would have questioned it anyway?

The most baffling decision involves their immediate issue after firing the cannon, before the disembodied arm/people in walls stuff comes up: the fact that they might have just wiped out all of human existence. After the event, they look on their navigational equipment and realize they cannot see their Earth, as if it was just gone, and even start trying to wrestle with the fact that they might have just killed 8 billion people while trying to save them. A fascinating idea, no? Too bad the movie almost instantly assures us that it's not the case, cutting back to Ava's husband Michael (Roger Davies) on Earth, a doctor who is en route to the hospital when a colleague texts him to say not to come because it had been destroyed, moments before he finds a little girl in the rubble of some other building that might have been attacked by a Cloverfield monster (THE Cloverfield monster? Couldn't tell you - we only see a shadow). He then does what you or I would do - takes the little girl, spends no time looking for other survivors (some doctor, eh?) and texts his buddy casually asking if he can use his bunker, the way one might ask their neighbor to borrow some flour. For a brief, wonderful second I considered his buddy might be John Goodman's character from 10 Cloverfield, which would have been my kind of hilariously stupid, but nah. His random unseen friend just has a bunker, I guess, and doesn't need to use it for himself despite giant monsters swarming the city.

We cut back to this stuff a few times during the movie, and it's always jarring, but also frustrating as it's vastly more interesting than the bulk of the space sequences (I've described all of the freaky moments already, I assure you. The rest is straight out of the outer space disaster 101 textbook). Davies is a good actor who brings a lot to his underwritten role, and in 30 seconds we know more about the little girl than we ever do about the people in the space station who have far more screentime. I would have liked seeing them in some sort of Last of Us kinda journey as they make their way to reunite her with her parents, but after a couple of scenes they're more or less dropped from the proceedings, letting a quick text message resolve her plight and giving Michael nothing to do until the final scene of the movie, which entertained me because it reminded me of another part 3 with only the thinnest connection to its predecessors (think Tom Atkins). I also kept thinking that it seemed like they were trying to suggest these scenes were occurring parallel to the events in the original film, but as that one took place in 2008 and this one clearly takes place in the future (undefined, but Michael's phone sports a "7G" network), that doesn't work - and even if it did, we'd still be left with the question of why no one in the original Cloverfield seemed to have a problem with an energy crisis, as it would have been ongoing for at least two years by that point.

OK, by now I'm sure a fan of this film (and there are some, and I am happy that they're able to enjoy it) is just itching to point out that I love Armageddon, i.e. the space movie so dumb that NASA uses it to test applicants, tasking them to find everything wrong in it. And yes, I do, but guess what? It has an INTERNAL logic that allows the movie to work for me, which this movie lacks and is thus why it annoyed me so much. For example, people love to harp on Armageddon's concept that "they can't train astronauts to drill for oil in 6 months, but can teach oil drillers to be astronauts in 12 days." On paper, yes, this is probably very stupid (I'm no expert in either field, so I have no idea), but in the movie, they justify it, repeatedly. Bruce Willis and co. are never once required to do anything astronaut-y (Bruce asks if they do and is told they do not, Billy Bob shouts "Can they physically survive the trip, that's all I need to know!", William Fichtner and HIS crew are shown doing all of the repairs and communications stuff, etc, etc.), and then the "world renowned experts on drilling" have more than a few problems "just drilling the hole", finding it difficult despite their years of expertise. In fact one of them is killed simply from a drilling mishap, not because he didn't know how to operate his spacesuit or whatever, so yeah, I think the astronauts who took a few courses in learning how to operate the drill arm (which they didn't even have, since the whole reason Harry was brought in in the first place was to fix it so it could work in space) might not have succeeded in saving the world. Long story short, it was a silly issue given an in-movie explanation for its existence, allowing the non-pedantic to enjoy the film. The movie can do any stupid thing it wants as long as it provides a justification for it - and this movie fails miserably at justifying anything about itself.

Now, if this mess had gone into theaters as originally planned (for April, if memory serves), it would have been screened for critics who would have warned you away, or it would be hidden from critics who would use that as proof that you should probably stay away. But instead, perhaps sensing its inevitable box office failure, Paramount (who can't afford another flop right now) sold it to Netflix, who then used the Super Bowl to turn it into an unprecedented event. If you recall, last year they debuted a teaser for Bright during the big game, but didn't release it until a year later, giving us a full year to wonder what this movie might be. This time, they teased that the film was coming "sooner than you think" and then, at the end of the game, came back to tell us it was available RIGHT NOW! (I was sticking around for This is Us, so I don't know if they really did time it exactly to the end of the game or not) - and keep in mind that as of four hours before, no one even knew what this movie was called or seen a single shot of footage from it. So they bypassed the usual marketing buildup and gave us a big budget sequel (of sorts) "for free", continuing the tradition of "Surprise! Here's the movie!" that the other two films also managed in their own way. A good idea, except this time it almost seems like they did it because they knew they had a stinker and figured the best chance the movie had at being watched was to make everyone feel like they would be the first in the world to do so. I'm sure it worked; Netflix doesn't release stats/numbers on their titles but the movie was being live-tweeted and hashtagged all night and now people have been making jokes about it and/or trying to explain it all day today, so we can assume that more people watched it than the average episode of one of their original series.

So in that respect I don't know if the movie is a "success" or not for them - if we watched it we already had the service, and they don't have commercials, so how does everyone watching the movie at once generate revenue for them? But let's assume somehow it does - do they care that the movie sucks? Furthermore, does Paramount care that it taints the brand they planned to extend with a WWII set entry due in November? And most importantly: why is this one such a mess? Again, it's not just the clunky Cloverfield-ing that does the script in, it's all over the place even within its own internal story - the franchise tie-ins just make it worse. With the filmmakers inadvertently shielded from doing any press for the film (yet) it's hard to tell who is to blame and where things might have gone wrong, but I sure would love to see an earlier cut or hear a candid commentary track from its screenwriters, who presumably wrote something interesting and then lost some things in a retrofitting that didn't even work anyway. The terrific cast and occasional moments where it starts to become something exciting both deserve better than the final product, and audiences deserve an explanation for the film they somewhat got duped into seeing by treating it as some sort of surprise gift. It's the U2 Songs of Innocence album of movies, basically.

What say you?


  1. My Prophecy sequels were two original spec scripts I wrote, sold to Dimension, and became 4 & 5. Of course, Dimension was notorious for doing that, so I wasn't surprised. Also I was told Dimension was buying them just to stick into The Prophecy series. Not sure if Oren Uziel knew that God Particle was gonna be shoehorned into the Cloverfield universe beforehand.

  2. Hey BC, your comment about Darren Lynn Bousman got me thinking... Are you following/participating in his "experiences?" Last year's The Tension Experience and this year's The Lust Experience are some of the best entertainment our city has to offer!


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