There is an ideal dimension out there where all films get released in the manner of horror Sci-Fi film ‘The Cloverfield Paradox’. You wake up one day and hear X studio has its film screening in theatres or streaming on demand. No exhausting hype (*cough Black Panther*), no spoilery trailers, minimalist marketing controversy. It’s all about the art and the desire to consume it. It then becomes a shame that the film at the end of this stunt was woefully underwhelming. The basic narrative now is that the powers-that-be at Netflix and Paramount felt the Julius Onah-directed ‘Cloverfield Paradox’ was so much of a bust that just dumping it after the Super Bowl was a prudent option. I don’t blame them.
‘The Cloverfield Paradox’s’ biggest albatross is its overt link to the Cloverfield franchise. The average person will tune into this one evening and derive some satisfaction from what may come off as a mild sci-fi thriller with a strong cast. But the Cloverfield tag suddenly opens it up to expectations that it really has no ability to match up to.
The world was introduced to the inspired world of ‘Cloverfield’ in 2008 with the found footage horror/monster movie. This was followed eight years later by ‘10 Cloverfield Lane’, a claustrophobic conspiracy thriller which had an enticing sense of ambiguity hanging over it. I imagine it was basically a coin toss as to whether this ‘10 Cloverfield Lane’ was actually a sequel because it really could have functioned and excelled as a standalone film. It takes only a throwaway five or 10 minutes to embed that film in the Cloverfield franchise. Where ‘10 Cloverfield Lane’ is subtle and restrained in its monster franchise roots, ‘The Cloverfield Paradox’ is shamelessly slobbering all over the prospect of being some sort of missing piece to a puzzle no one asked them to solve.
As for the story itself, ‘The Cloverfield Paradox’ tries to paint a picture of a bleak, decaying dystopia with its clumsily edited opening. Alarmists news reports wail about an energy crisis that has engulfed the world (America really) There are blackouts along with stretched gridlock of cars at fuel stations.The first world doomsday scenario. You know those early scenes evoke? Not a society about to tear itself up but Nigeria on Tuesday. Of course, the situation in Nigeria is dysfunction at its classic best. Maybe our favourite West African nation should take a cue from this film and send a team of international scientists into space to look for a solution. Lord knows the solution does not appear to lie here on earth.
So yeah, a team of scientists are sent into space to avert this unconvincing doomsday scenario. They are trying to conjure up some new energy source with a particle accelerator. The details are tedious and the outcome predictable. I mean, the film even takes time to show conspiracy nut on a newsreel basically summarising the entire film. A metaphysical Pandora’s Box is opened and there is a rip in the space-time continuum as scientists traverse into another parallel dimension. What does the prospect of meeting different versions of yourself mean? The script flirts with this idea but the characters are too two-dimensional for any real effect.
Oh, the characters.
We spend most of our time with the international space crew. There’s a Russian in there (Aksel Hennie) who seems to be unnecessarily belligerent. The likes of Daniel Brühl, David Oyelowo, Zhang Ziyi and John Ortiz are part of the criminally wasted diverse cast. Elizabeth Debicki shows up later on in the films only real moment of terror, presenting it with the perfect opportunity to pivot fully into the horror genre it thinks it is. Alas, we also have horror-pooper Chris O’Dowd playing an Irish astronaut, a nationality which seems so incongruous and random; like if a Uruguayan or Kiwi astronaut was shoehorned in to work alongside nationals from Germany, US, China, England, Brazil and Russia.
O’Dowd is a marker for the film tonal failings. When you think the film is going to clench its teeth, enter into squeaky bum time and infuse a sense of dread, there is our good old Irish lad diffusing tension with unwelcome humor. He is directed so horribly in moments that were begging to leave audiences queasy but are executed to frustratingly limp effect.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is our lead and she has a relatively fleshed out character, complete with the standard shroud of grief and guilt along with a husband waiting for her at home. The memory of her family haunts her. The home videos of them she constantly watches seem like attempts at self-harm. It is through her character that the idea of a parallel dimension starts to present hints of some difficult questions that will be worth exploring in another film that looks to meld hard-core science and sentimentality. Her husband (played by Roger Davies) is at the centre of his own subplot on earth as the film tries unsuccessfully to cannibalise the 2008 Cloverfield film.
‘The Cloverfield Paradox’ has its fair share of moments that, that indicated some amount of potential. The rip in the space-time continuum should have given the film more of an edge, like when we learn a character had a hoard of worms living in him, or when the crew discovers whereabouts of missing piece of essential equipment for the accelerator or when it seems like the ship has developed a murderous mind of its own. But we have to make do with expected character turns, a vague realisation of stakes and the inevitable in-our-face reveal that “confirms” that we are indeed in the Cloverfield universe.
The script and direction are the main culprits here. The former lacking imagination, the latter feeble, both ultimately manifesting in a dearth dexterity and focus. It all culminates in a film with elements dancing off beat to a badly composed tune of thriller, horror and sci-fi. This film is in itself a contradiction to the once noble Cloverfield name and perhaps there is a masterful Alien-esque sci-fi thriller being floating around in a different dimension.