The Cloverfield Paradox was not intended to make its big debut on your television screen. First announced with the title God Particle, the sci-fi horror film directed by Julius Onah was all set for a theatrical release this year until it suddenly wasn’t. In January, rumors abounded that Netflix was interested in purchasing the rights to the film from Paramount, and that the studio (which also sold Netflix the international rights to another sci-fi horror, Annihilation) was worried the movie wouldn’t be a big enough hit to justify its production and marketing costs. Just weeks after that report, in the middle of the Super Bowl, Netflix made it official with a splashy ad: This new film, retitled The Cloverfield Paradox, would debut on its streaming platform right after the game.
When Paramount sold off the international rights to Annihilation, it was a slightly worrying indication that the company (which is trying to recover from a series of high-profile flops) was becoming too risk-averse about releasing more challenging genre material with less reliable box-office potential. But it’s unfortunately obvious what spooked the studio about The Cloverfield Paradox. Not only is it not very good as a standalone story, but it’s also been bizarrely shoehorned in to J.J. Abrams’s nebulous Cloverfield franchise (which now consists of three films made in the last 10 years) with next to no narrative justification.
There’s plenty to praise about the film, which has a wonderful international cast of actors, very high-end production values with lots of creepy and gory special effects, and some genuinely well-staged set pieces. But that’s all in service of a script that is heinously undercooked to the point of total confusion. Onah, a Nigerian American filmmaker who made a promising debut with The Girl Is in Trouble in 2015, does what he can to paper over the story inconsistencies by ratcheting up the suspense. But the end result still feels more befuddling than terrifying.
The Cloverfield Paradox is set on a space station orbiting Earth sometime in the near future, on which a team of scientists from around the world are trying to solve the planet’s energy crisis before humans descend into apocalyptic warfare. The ensemble includes a Brit, Ava (Gugu Mbatha-Raw); an American, Kiel (David Oyelowo); an Irishman, Mundy (Chris O’Dowd); the Chinese engineer Tam (Zhang Ziyi); and the tense German physicist Schmidt (Daniel Brühl), each giving solid, workmanlike performances as they tersely try to save the world. Their solution to renewable energy revolves around running a gigantic particle accelerator, and after years of failed tests, their experiment finally seems to work … except that in the aftermath, Earth vanishes from their viewscreens.
I could spoil the rest of the film, but that would do little more than confuse things further, since there’s no internal logic to what follows. Simply put, the station has pushed the boundaries of science with all its experimental proton-smashing and traveled into a new dimension of some sort. And in this dimension, things go bump in the night, frequently and with little further explanation as to why.
One scientist’s eye starts to twitch and turn in the opposite direction without warning. There’s a scene where someone extravagantly barfs a tsunami of worms onto his teammates. One of the station’s walls becomes inexplicably porous and devours an arm, transporting it elsewhere and somehow giving it a mind of its own (think Thing from The Addams Family, but with an elbow). The dimensional shift is used as a very vague, science-y excuse for a lot of gross-out imagery, some of it more fun than others. But there isn’t much more to the plot than watching each cast member get tormented by their environment, one at a time.
Woven through all this space horror are the adventures of Michael (Roger Davies), Ava’s husband, who’s back home wrestling with a traumatic family loss that drove Ava to accept her assignment on the station. As the Cloverfield Station (yes, that’s what it’s called) disappears from NASA radars, things begin to get chaotic on Earth as well in an entirely different way. There’s barely enough time with Michael to even call this a B-plot, but his story is the way for the film to connect things to Cloverfield, the 2008 monster movie (also produced by Abrams) that has become the brand name around which largely unrelated films are being organized.
In 2016, a film initially titled The Cellar got branded 10 Cloverfield Lane and was released to critical plaudits and financial success; the movie had little to do with the original Cloverfield but had the same winking, self-aware approach to sci-fi horror (and the same production team). The idea of Cloverfield as a sort of Twilight Zone umbrella for original genre storytelling in film was appealing, and the name certainly seemed to help 10 Cloverfield Lane at the box office. But in its final act, The Cloverfield Paradox tries to tie into its 2008 forebear in a much more literal sense, and the result feels spectacularly inept. The film may be enough to kill the Cloverfield franchise for good, if Paramount’s decision to offload the movie to Netflix wasn’t fatal enough already.
Speaking of which, watching a movie like this on the small screen detracts from the overall experience, though it’s hard to quantify just how much. Certainly Onah intended it for a big screen, and The Cloverfield Paradox’s more frightening sequences would have probably hit home harder in a theater. Given that the movie ended up on Netflix, it’s hard not to compare it to the streaming service’s sci-fi hits like Black Mirror, down to the twisty ending and Easter egg hints of an extended universe. As a pilot episode for a sci-fi serial with a little more time to dig into the particulars of its strange premise, The Cloverfield Paradox might just have worked. But as a glorified TV movie, it has landed with an epic thud.