Cloverfield Paradox fiddles with its multiverse concept and awards itself a free pass, brushing over the task of explaining surreal activities.
Netflix made an unprecedented move dropping the first teaser for The Cloverfield Paradox a few hours before it was available to stream on the site. Formerly titled God Particle, the movie was reworked into J.J. Abrams' Cloverfield series during production. The original story's inklings of eccentricity must have prompted Abrams to merge it into his most celebrated brand.
Trailing the path of Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane—both are revered hits, Paradox is expected to reap similar acclaim. Rumors about the acquisition from Paramount were correct, but can Paradox eclipse its marketing shenanigans? The answer is Netflix doesn't need it to.
The abrupt announcement turns out an ostentatious trick to dumbfound critics before negative reviews can prevent viewers from clicking the movie—a lesson from the tasteless fantasy Bright. For all its marketing smoke, the derivative (see how many movies I'll name in this review), Paradox can't continue the successes of its methodical yet ingenious predecessors. Sci-fi aficionados yawn while mainstream audience wouldn't be willing and invested enough to keep up with its story.
An energy crisis, with multiple blackouts per day being a default, looms over the world population. Starvation and world war threaten to tear societies apart—you know, the basic premise for a space epic with scientific splendors like Interstellar. The Cloverfield Station is the solution, or at least the world's hopes make it out to be. In space, it will facilitate the experiments of the Shepard Particle Accelerator, promising a fresh, infinite source of energy.
British scientist Ava Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, too charming in Black Mirror's "San Junipero") is Paradox's main character, though the plot never makes clear of her expertise. After juggling between choices, she reluctantly leaves behind her attentive husband Michael (Roger Davies) and a family tragedy to join the multi-ethnic crew on the station. To make the matter less sad, her mission is set for a six-month period at most.
The actual process exhausts them over the painstaking course of almost two years. The 48th test proves almost successful, but a last-second power surge cripples the station. After conditions are stable, confusions ensue as the Earth is nowhere to be found. This accident matches an earlier warning by conspiracy-theorist-slash-published-author Mark Stambler (Donal Logue, in a reshot scene). His last name is as important as his theory about the Cloverfield Paradox (the title, ahoy!), in which interdimensional disarray occurs after the Shepard creates a stable beam. From this, Paradox arranges a series of space-horror contrivances in the bizarre vein of Twilight Zone, Event Horizon, and the 2001 film series.
For a blockbuster, the production design is polished and intricate enough, but the grandiose station would be memorable and essential to the story if director Julius Onah (The Girl is in Trouble) made a lasting impression of internal set pieces. Instead, the plot and Dan Mindel's cinematography, supported by a laudably thrilling score from Bear McCreary (Outlander), unfold fast with a generic view and exertion of specific quarters. Unmotivated shots are peppered with Abrams' Easter Eggs like the word "Kelvin" and Slusho! products. Onah shows a little effort in depicting the life up here: a synthesized bagel or a sealant-spackle handpump. The people using them, however, are as plain as dispensable.
Played by a dramatically adept cast of character actors, the crewmembers are written by Oren Uziel (22 Jump Street) as almost caricatures of one-note personalities. Captain Kiel (David Oyelowo) is a helpless, indecisive leader, making us miss Hiroyuki Sanada's character in Sunshine even more. This doesn't mitigate Paradox's beat-for-beat imitation of Danny Boyle's 2007 underrated sci-fi.
Irish comic relief Mundy (Chris O'Dowd) is involved in the spookiest incidents, and O'Dowd contrasts the horror of dismemberment with comical responses that the scene doesn't deserve. Monk (John Ortiz) is a filler character; his only purpose is standing with his back against the villain before the actual climax. And why is the featureless engineer Tam (Zhang Ziyi) speaking in Mandarin and others mostly reply in English, this going on and on?
Affected by unclear abnormalities, Russian atmosphere technician Volko (Aksel Hennie) dumps his anger and frustration onto German physicist Schmidt (Daniel Brühl), accusing him of being a spy. This is the only conflict worth noticing for the first half of the movie. Minimal strifes are brushed over for the plot to cram in more Michael scenes, where he hides from giant monsters inside a bunker. Wow, visual winks and nods to two movies in one plot beat, take that Marvel!
I'm sure in the editing room there exist some original footage similar to the dining-table banter that contributed to Alien's greatness. It's a shame seeing astronauts walking around with so little professional and psychological conviction. Bland characters in his hands, Onah refuses to handle their deaths with dramatic weight and visual delicacy like, again, Sunshine did. He focuses more on the action to pull off perfunctory, Final Destination-like mishaps.
The introduction of a mysterious woman (Elizabeth Debicki, always with inappropriately dazzling hair in space) is one of the few strong suits, combining the suspense of this confusing crisis with wince-inducing grotesqueness, which reminisces of the body horror of Tetsuo: The Iron Man or David Cronenberg's eXistenZ.
Much like last year's A Cure for Wellness, Paradox treads a familiar ground and thus often bumps into genre trappings—now with a hint of self-doubt. Arbitrary accidents stem from unknown elements for the convenience of its weird chaos. With the voice in Volko's head, is the movie implying there is a sentient being that kills the crew one by one? Paradox fiddles with its multiverse concept and awards itself a free pass, brushing over the task of explaining surreal activities. Between parallel dimensions and random teleportation, there are a few moments of genuine surprises, like the missing gyroscope and earthworms, but they entail ridiculous plot holes about how human anatomy works.
The second half uses Ava's emotional conflict, a verbal revelation too late for this narrative, as the core idea on which the story operates, or at least tries to. This element too is undermined because it's a nonsensical choice. In two tear-jerking scenes, Mbatha-Raw's committed, emotive acting is the only force that drives the Solaris-esque regret and heartbreak Ava has been suffering. But one must wonder whether all those deaths and destructions have been building up to her character moment or Paradox just comes from two stories clumsily paired. Either way, the writing choice is bewildering at best.
By purposefully gluing the franchise together, Paradox sets a rule. The later installments, marred by this poorly devised attempt to patch up a space-horror B-movie, would fall into the same line of entanglement and Easter Eggs. This particle-smashing blunder's direct-to-video quality is the newest example of Netflix's schematic programming as the streaming giant overextends while grabbing a piece of blockbuster profitability.
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