THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX: Inventive Marketing Doesn’t Help This Generic Space Thriller
The Cloverfield Paradox is helped along through a clever use of viral marketing, but it's not enough to save an otherwise generic and messy sci-fi thriller.
It all started with a tweet. On Sunday, February 5th, mere hours before the Super Bowl, director Ava DuVernay sent out a cryptic tweet, claiming that Film Twitter was going to blow up that night. Not quite sure what that meant, but with a hundred hopeful guesses, I eagerly waited. And there it came, in the midst of the Super Bowl – a trailer for the long-delayed Cloverfield sequel, now called The Cloverfield Paradox, and following the trailer, these words: “Only on Netflix tonight.”
Having eagerly anticipated the arrival of this 10 Cloverfield Lane follow-up, I was astonished and excited to hear the news. Push marketing like this is almost unheard of, and would be sure to boost the amount of viewers of the film as a result. Turns out, though, as I’m sure many people have discovered by now, the clever marketing strategy for The Cloverfield Paradox is one of its only noteworthy achievements.
An Exercise in Convolutedness
The Cloverfield Paradox focuses on a group of scientists currently housed within a space station called the Shepherd. Given an advanced particle accelerator, their mission for the past two years was to test this machine in space in order to harness infinite energy for Earth, which is currently going through a serious energy crisis. The crew consists of head scientist Ava Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), captain Kiel (David Oyelowo), engineers Schmidt (Daniel Brühl) and Tam (Zhang Ziyi), techie Mundy (Chris O’Dowd), and others, including characters played by John Ortiz and Aksel Hennie.
As is hinted at early on, though, this testing of the particle accelerator could have very unfortunate side effects, including the opening of a portal to other dimensions (how anyone can possibly predict the opening of another dimension if not yet aware that other dimensions exist is beyond me, but who am I to argue?). Sure enough, in the final attempt by the crew, it all goes terribly wrong, and the Shepherd soon finds itself transported into another reality, with nothing but their own knowledge and determination to make it back to their version of Earth.
Where The Cloverfield Paradox veers off is approximately at this point. Whereas before it was simply a somewhat competent space thriller (though with generically by-the-books action) now, with the addition of inter-dimensional riffraff, the film becomes far too complicated for its own good. Elements which soon arise include: the addition of a mysterious passenger on board their flight, played by Elizabeth Debicki, a gross but somewhat effective worm displacement, and, in one of the film’s most unexpectedly funny sequences, a character’s limb loss.
None of these sequences on their own are particularly abysmal (though the arm scene is somewhat of a cringeworthy moment), but the incessant need to somehow connect these odd occurrences is at odds with any cohesive narrative. The film’s explanation for the bizarre goings-on is that, with the spaceship occupying two different dimensions, they are pushed beyond the physics of a normal reality.
But the end result, as helmed by director Julius Onah and written by Oren Uziel and Doug Jung, is closer to taking a list of individual sci-fi tropes, placing them into a hat, and then picking at random which ones to include. It’s a film so caught up in its own mysticism that they forgot to create an engaging story to go along with it. It’s evident, as well, that the original product must have changed several times in production; the story dates back to 2012, before it was even decided to turn it into a Cloverfield film.
Further adding choppiness to the story is a subplot that is occurring simultaneously on our version of Earth, where Ava Hamilton’s husband Michael (Roger Davies) is dealing with the aftereffects of the Shepherd’s space experiments. There is some sort of chaos occurring on the planet, though we’re not allowed to see it head on as he spends much of this time in a bomb shelter, which makes the story superfluous since the plot should be a stand-in for our eyes on Earth. In actuality, it seems as if the only reason they don’t show what is happening is to have the chance to “reveal” it in the film’s closing scenes. Either way, the story is disruptive to the spaceship narrative itself and detracts from any real tension.
Connections to Cloverfield Universe
For fans of the Cloverfield franchise, you likely are already well aware of previous entries, including the original monster-stomping Cloverfield and the “spiritual successor” 10 Cloverfield Lane. As with Paradox, the decision to include 10 Cloverfield Lane as taking place in the same universe came later. But 10 Cloverfield Lane differs in that each element of the film works on its own before attempting to combine it. For much of its length, it’s an incredibly tense, claustrophobic thriller anchored by some great performances, including John Goodman as a surprisingly believable villain. Later, when it opens up into a sci-fi alien film, it’s still just as entertaining, albeit in a very different way.
In The Cloverfield Paradox, the links to prior Cloverfield films are much more overt. From its start, when the idea is presented that the Shepherd experiments could unleash monsters from alternate dimensions, you can already see the predetermined outcome. Therefore, when the film does show its links by the conclusion, it’s no longer a surprise, which seals its purpose merely as a filled-in backstory as opposed to a standalone entry. It’s this type of connection that was thankfully missing in both earlier films, whose aura of mystery contributed greatly to their stories.
Mismatched & Underdeveloped Characters
Once again, though, even with its obvious connections to a wider franchise, The Cloverfield Paradox could have been distinctive in other ways. With such a diverse range of talent in front of the screen, one would expect at least a few memorable characters or interactions, yet the end result is instead a mishmash of poorly developed archetypes. There is the noble sensible character, played by David Oyelowo, the one with questionable motives, played by Daniel Brühl, the comic relief genius, played by Chris O’Dowd, the mysterious stranger, played by Elizabeth Debicki, and the reserved but soon to be resilient scientist, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
Besides Mbatha-Raw, though, who is actually given a somewhat resonant character arc, including the film’s strongest emotional moment towards its conclusion, almost none of the others have any lasting effect. Like many prior space thrillers, including Alien: Covenant as a recent example, most of these characters are there just to have a brief triumphant moment before dying. Characters needlessly sacrificing themselves really should be an outdated trope by now (as demonstrated recently by The Last Jedi), but The Cloverfield Paradox isn’t much concerned with being subversive.
The Cloverfield Paradox: Conclusion
Perhaps there was never any successful way to save The Cloverfield Paradox. After years of pre-production and rewrites, the film was given to a first-time director and then the release date was pushed forward repeatedly. Finally, after the last delay, it was then shockingly released on Netflix after the aforementioned viral marketing at the Super Bowl.
Yet, unlike 10 Cloverfield Lane, none of this secrecy contributed greatly to its narrative; if anything, it’s more of a letdown as a result. Bogged down by generic action and characters, a confused plot, and an overall sense of been-there done-that, The Cloverfield Paradox, after a momentary burst of excitement, will likely fizzle out.
What are your thoughts on The Cloverfield Paradox? Do you think Netflix’s unique method of viral marketing is a good strategy moving forward?
The Cloverfield Paradox is now available on Netflix.
“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.