The Cloverfield Paradox had been on the radar for some time (known initially as God Particle) when, on Super Bowl Sunday 2018, amidst the ads for carbonated beverages and fashionably edible laundry detergent, the world was shocked by a commercial announcing that the movie was now available on Netflix. The wave of excitement that revelation generated, however, soon soured into a tsunami of vitriol, as viewers and critics alike (perhaps more the latter) lambasted the film, the third in the loosely tied together Cloverfield franchise. But I’m here, perhaps alone, perhaps a bit drunk, to defend The Cloverfield Paradox as a fun, attractively shot sci-fi thriller that benefits from solid production value and a killer cast — the latter of which is relevant to this site because several of the primary characters (and the director, Julius Onah) are black.
POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD
It’s the year 2028, and Earth is in the midst of a catastrophic energy crisis. The world’s energy sources will be gone within five years, so humanity hatches an Armageddon-styled space mission to save us all. An international crew of seven, led by American Commander Kiel (David Oyelowo) and featuring British communications officer Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), German physicist Schmidt (Daniel Brühl), Irish engineer Mundy (Chris O’Dowd) and Chinese engineer Tan (Zhang Ziyi), heads up to the space station Cloverfield in order to test the Shepard particle accelerator, a device that’s so powerful, it can generate an endless supply of energy for the entire planet. Trouble is, it’s also so powerful, they had to launch it into space to limit the potential damage it could do to Earth.
After a couple years of failed attempts to fire up the accelerator, one brief breakthrough causes an overload that literally throws everyone onboard for a loop. When the crew gets their bearings, they realize to their horror that Earth is nowhere to be found. Did they destroy the planet? Did it simply disappear? Did THEY disappear? And if so, where are they now?
This is the mystery that propels the plot in The Cloverfield Paradox, and it’s a doozy of a premise. It’s not surprising that the script was scooped up by producer J.J. Abrams even though it had no connection to the original Cloverfield. Like the second film in the franchise, 10 Cloverfield Lane, the story was an original, standalone script that was retroactively wedged into the Cloverfield universe with some plot tweaks.
The enthralling concept is further deepened when it’s revealed that the reason Earth is no longer visible is that the crew has come in contact with a parallel dimension exposed by the power of the particle accelerator. This is not only an enticing plot twist but one that gives the script carte blache to throw in a bunch of trippy content, like what happens when two objects (or people) occupy the same space at the same time. Hint: it ain’t pretty.
But such creative license seems to be lost on the film’s detractors, some of whom are baffled by the imaginative array of spatial horrors portrayed in the movie. To me, it all lends a fantastic sense of endless possibilities, sort of like the dream realm in the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, but apparently, there’s something about spaced-based movies involving any semblance of science that makes people channel their inner Neil deGrasse Tyson and point out every unrealistic element. Is there a scene where there’s inexplicable gravity during a spacewalk? Sure, but we’re talking about a movie with a crawling, disembodied hand. This isn’t Citizen Kane. It seems some people are OK with Vin Diesel jumping a car between skyscrapers, but if you try to do that on a spaceship, it’s suddenly impossible to suspend disbelief.
I don’t pretend to know about particle accelerators, but I know the scientific minutiae in a film like this isn’t what’s important. In real life, is it likely there’s one single solution that could provide an endless supply of energy for an entire planet? No, but for the purpose of establishing the stakes of the story, it’s forgivable. It’s called a movie, people.
Is it a bit of a cheap technique to use the unknown ramifications of interacting with parallel dimensions to gloss over certain details about the plot? You bet. It’s kind of like using a character’s insanity to explain illogical actions, but again, this isn’t exactly a TED Talk. This is a popcorn movie — or wasn’t the bit with the crawling arm enough of a clue?
Unfortunately, when a viewer decides they don’t like a movie, the dislike tends to snowball, picking up every little detail (“Look at the hair continuity between those two scenes!!!”) — including many you’d turn a blind eye toward if they were in a movie you were enjoying — until it becomes an avalanche of hatred that proclaims this to be the latest in a long line of worst films in the history of cinema.
Yes, The Cloverfield Paradox isn’t as good as earlier space-based sci-fi thrillers like Sunshine, Event Horizon or Moon, and it probably owes a debt to not only them, but also Alien, 2001, Solaris and other similar fare, but it manages to find its own interesting, enjoyable niche. It’s certainly better than dreck like Mission to Mars and Geostorm. I’d put it on par with a couple of other sci-fi-horror hybrids from the previous year: Life and Alien: Covenant. All three are flawed but generally entertaining in a low-brow, just-watch-and-enjoy way.
Most of the characters in Paradox are one-dimensional (no pun intended), but such is the nature of genre fare with a large ensemble cast. The lead protagonist, Hamilton, however, is sufficiently developed and is faced with the thought-provoking and heart-wrenching internal conflict of deciding which dimension she’d rather live in. Mbatha-Raw delivers a strong performance that rises above this otherwise pulpy fare. Oyelowo is likewise above his role, which is basically playing the straight man to a bunch of panicky crew members. His is a dull, flat character who ends up sacrificing himself in a typical black “heroic death,” but at least this time, he’s dying for another black character.
What’s interesting about the negative reaction to The Cloverfield Paradox is that many of the same complaints could also be applied to the previous film, 10 Cloverfield Lane, but for some reason, that movie received rave reviews. You want to talk illogical? Why would Howard (John Goodman) want Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), whom he just “rescued,” to immediately feel like a prisoner by chaining her in a locked room (especially when the main door to the building is already locked)? And why would he portray a girl publicly known to be missing as his daughter?
You want to talk far-fetched? How about a single Molotov cocktail taking down an entire alien ship? You want to talk about not fitting within the original Cloverfield storyline? The Cloverfield Paradox was way more cohesive with Cloverfield than 10 Cloverfield Lane‘s alien invasion, and in fact, Paradox‘s plot about the mangling of space-time is pretty much necessary to explain the events in 10 Cloverfield Lane (as well as setting up future films that could take place in different realities and timelines, making the franchise more like an anthology than a series of sequels). I realize I’m probably in the minority here, but I’d take Paradox over Lane any day, the latter of which felt like a protracted countdown to the inevitable reveal, which ended up being a disappointing head-scratcher that felt like I’d jumped into another movie entirely.
The prevailing opinion seems to be that Paramount “foisted” The Cloverfield Paradox onto Netflix, the implication being that it was likely to flop at the box office. In truth, as I’ve tried to explain, it’s not that bad, and it CERTAINLY wouldn’t be “beneath” a studio whose abysmal slate of 2017 major theatrical releases included Transformers: The Last Knight, xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, Rings, Baywatch, Ghost in the Shell, Suburbicon, Monster Trucks, Downsizing and Daddy’s Home 2. Only one of Paramount’s 10 wide releases in 2017 (Mother!) received a “Fresh” score on Rotten Tomatoes and only three reached the $50 million mark in the US, so how bad of a flop could The Cloverfield Paradox have been in comparison?
Paramount might cop to the fact that they felt the stars didn’t have big enough names to carry the film to the masses, but that’s pretty much why it was slapped with the widely known Cloverfield tag, isn’t it? The studio will probably never admit publicly that the film had even less room for error because the primary stars are black and thus, as the common studio excuse goes, would have limited international appeal — never mind all that global cash that comes rolling in ever time a new Fast & Furious movie is released.
I can’t help but think if the stars were white, the brand name recognition would’ve been sufficient to convince Paramount to release it. But such is the nature of racism; it’s hard to prove, and it’s hard to pinpoint — even by those who are guilty of it, because it’s often so subtle that it’s subconscious. Regardless of the reasoning, in an era in which black filmmakers and black-led films like Get Out, Black Panther, Hidden Figures, Girls Trip and Moonlight are making notable splashes at the box office and during awards season, it’s a shame that Paramount didn’t give The Cloverfield Paradox the benefit of the doubt.