By Noah White
A few months ago, I would’ve considered The Cloverfield Paradox the exciting signifier of a new era in franchise films. Indeed, when the clever, intense, and surprising trailer dropped during the first quarter of Super Bowl LI, I began impatiently waiting for the game to be over so I could get home and watch it on Netflix. I had a feeling the film might be less-than-stellar, of course; it had a relatively troubled road to release (it was completed back in 2016, and sold off to Netflix by Paramount in December of 2017). But still, 10 Cloverfield Lane, released in 2016 as a “spiritual” sequel to 2008’s Cloverfield, was enough of a compelling horror/thriller that I was willing to give Paradox the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, I was gravely mistaken.
The Cloverfield Paradox revolves around a team of scientists who are operating a particle accelerator on a space station christened — yep, you guessed it — Cloverfield Station. There’s some sort of vague energy crisis happening down on earth, and the team’s success might mean that war would be averted. Eventually, the team manages what seems like a successful experiment. But this, of course, is a horror film with “Cloverfield” in the title, so things are not quite what they seem; the crew looks out the windows of the space station to see that the earth has disappeared (which, for the record, would be a decidedly bad thing).
J.J. Abrams, who has produced all of the installments of this pseudo-franchise, has a penchant for big ideas, and turning the 2008 monster film into its own franchise is perhaps his biggest. An anthology series that gets small-budget, director-focused, genre films released in theaters? What’s not to like? It helps that 10 Cloverfield Lane, the first spiritual sequel in this franchise, was released to critical acclaim and was surprise smash at the box office, making $110.2 million on a $15 million budget. In this climate of endless franchises and cinematic universes, this is perhaps the best the thoughtful filmgoer could hope for. But, alas, The Cloverfield Paradox somehow manages to bring all of that excitement to a screeching halt.
The film plays out in an underwhelming fashion contrary to what its set up suggests — for example, the earth doesn’t disappear, the scientists are just transferred to another, nearly identical, dimension. What follows from this is merely a paint-by-numbers science-fiction horror film that somehow manages to borrow from every notable film of the same vein that preceded it. Alien and Gravity are the most obvious influences here, from the body horror to the frightening spacewalks. And it’s not like such sequences in Paradox are cheesy or poorly created; no, a few of them are genuinely scary. The issue is that they are almost entirely arbitrary. In a good horror film, the horror drives the story forward or has a thematic point; in The Cloverfield Paradox the story conceit is only there to provide an excuse for these scary things to happen. They occur largely unconnected to the plot of the film.
While 10 Cloverfield Lane managed to keep the audience on their toes the whole film, providing scares that were littered with tension and constantly hinting at — but remaining coy about — its connection to its namesake, The Cloverfield Paradox is heavy-handed from the beginning, insisting that it will tie into this fledgling universe in a very specific way. The creators of Paradox lean precisely into the least exciting things about the idea of a Cloverfield universe; Paradox is far too literal and fails in almost every way that matters. And in spite of boasting one of the more impressive casts in quite some time the performances are uninspired and rote. The direction too, of course, leaves much to be desired. But the sheer mediocrity of the film manages to transcend its parts and be wholly depressing, given the modern Hollywood landscape. It’s not simply that the film is singularly bad — it is. It’s also that it seems to have potentially killed the future of the franchise before it had the chance to breathe.
We’ve been inundated with cinematic universes in the years since Marvel Studios roared to life some ten years ago, and, admittedly, the prospect of another one seems exhausting. At one time, the Cloverfield franchise appeared to have a bright future. But with the apparent success (in spite of its quality) that The Cloverfield Paradox has experienced on Netflix, the future seems hazier. There is now the real worry that the producers of these films will be overall less concerned with delivering the strikingly original, well crafted science fiction and horror that the franchise once promised. One might think that The Cloverfield Paradox grounded this fledgling franchise before it even had a chance to stretch its wings.
Not all is lost, however; we have at least one more installment to be released, a World War II thriller currently titled Overlord (this most certainly will be changed), which is scheduled for October 26 of this year. The fear, though, is not that there will be no more Cloverfield films. Rather, it is that The Cloverfield Paradox’s apparent success on Netflix may signify a stronger, faster move toward the streaming model that has been threatening for a few years now. There is a place for films to be enjoyed on the small screen, of course; but the theatrical experience is essential to enjoying most cinema. Maybe Cloverfield’s producers can right the ship; if not, the failure of the Cloverfield franchise will be just another depressing reminder of the not-so-slow death of originality in Hollywood.