The most shocking thing about J.J. Abrams’ surprise new “Cloverfield” movie is how bad it is.
“Cloverfield” might be the single best idea that J.J. Abrams ever had, and he got to have it twice, with the first two installments of the franchise both successfully disrupting the way that big sci-fi movies are sold to the public. When the third entry, “The Cloverfield Paradox,” dropped on Netflix after the Super Bowl with virtually no advance warning, it seemed like Hollywood’s greatest showman had done it again. Alas, the most surprising thing about this bold attempt to salvage a very bad film is that Abrams was so willing to sully his most exciting original brand.
Abrams conceived of the original “Cloverfield” — first introduced to the world via a titillatingly title-less trailer before screenings of “Transformers” during the summer of 2007 — as the purest example of his “mystery box” approach to modern storytelling. A natural evolution of the ethos that powered “Lost” for six long years, “Cloverfield” found Abrams learning how to sell a film with the same tactics he used to sustain the plot of a TV show. “What is the island?” became “What is the movie?” People were made so curious by the question that they collectively spent more than $170 million to discover the answer for themselves.
In 2016, Abrams did it again. Faced with the challenge of selling an original piece of science-fiction at a time when stars are dwarfed by the intellectual property they shine upon, Abrams took a $15 million movie called “Valencia,” secretly changed its title to “10 Cloverfield Lane” during post-production (not even the cast knew what they were making), and then crossed his fingers that even the faintest hint of brand recognition would be enough to re-contextualize the project as a major event. While the rest of the industry was focused on turning every major franchise into a cash cow, Abrams transformed a minor one into a Trojan horse. The movie, directed by Dan Trachtenberg, grossed more than $110 million worldwide.
After that, audiences were primed to expect more from the franchise, fully aware that virtually anything on Abrams’ docket (save for the “Star Wars” stuff) could be retconned into the next “Cloverfield” movie; that’s the beauty of a loosely connected film world in which the various stories are thought of as siblings and not sequels. Abrams had created a perfect engine for converting original sci-fi into multiplex events — a particle accelerator for hype — and he wasn’t just going to let it rust.
He rescued an Oren Uziel script called “God Particle,” recognizing that the space oddity had all the hallmarks of a “Cloverfield” hit. And while most producers would have been deflated when Paramount balked at the film’s ballooning price tag and sold the rights to Netflix, but this was the moment Abrams had been waiting for: Finally, after using the previous two installments to shrink the window between announcing a film and making it available, he was going to be able to give the movies their first genuine Radiohead moment.
By the end of the second quarter of Super Bowl LII, “The Cloverfield Paradox” was revealed on national television. By the end of the fourth quarter, it was already streaming on Netflix. By the end of the night, Abrams’ best idea had led to his biggest blunder. It’s too soon to say if “The Cloverfield Paradox” killed its franchise (a fourth installment is already slated for later this year), but it’s already clear that the “Cloverfield” brand — until yesterday a magic word capable of stirring excitement out of nothing — is now tainted beyond recognition.
A chintzy, scatterbrained, and insufferably boring pastiche of better movies about people stranded in space, this unmitigated disaster actually starts out with a decent amount of promise. The story begins at some point in the near future, when the world is suffering from an energy crisis so dire that Germany is threatening war just to keep the lights on. British scientist Ava Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, vibrant and charismatic no matter what) is faced with a dilemma, cleanly laid out in an unmotivated stream of expository dialogue too excruciating to quote here: She can stay on Earth with her nice husband, Michael (Roger Davies, left to carry a lifeless B-plot that feels like an afterthought), or she can go up to the Cloverfield Station and perfect the particle accelerator that could restore power to the entire planet.
Ava weighs two lives against seven billion, and accepts the mission. Whether by convenience or design, that choice is in keeping with “Cloverfield” tradition, as all three of these movies begin with people leaving the people they love before some cataclysmic craziness puts their choice into harsh perspective. Unfortunately, that choice is the only interesting one that Ava ever gets to make.
In orbit for two whole years before we even reach the title card, Ava is joined by a United Nation’s worth of great actors from across the globe, all of whom are wasted on the weakest characters they’ve ever had to play. David Oyelowo is the American dude, Zhang Ziyi is the obligatory Chinese representative, John Ortiz is the Bible-thumping Brazilian guy, Aksel Hennie (“Headhunters”) is the shifty Russian guy, Daniel Brühl is the even shiftier German guy, and Chris O’Dowd is the comic relief.
This motley crew of future casualties is stuffed inside a spaceship that looks more like a giant weed-whacker than it does anything you might find at CERN, its forgettable design and flimsy interiors only memorable for a haunted foosball table and 3D-printed bagels that look way more disgusting than any of the creature effects to come. Ava’s team fires up the particle accelerator, something goes wrong, and the Earth disappears. Initially it’s unclear if the Cloverfield has moved or if they’ve obliterated their home planet (this is the part when you begin screaming at your computer screen about how someone should just look for the sun). By the time that Hennie is vomiting worms, O’Dowd’s arm is walking around on its fingers, and Elizabeth Debicki has materialized inside of a wall, we gather that the answer is a bit more complicated than that.
“Logic doesn’t apply anymore,” one of the characters says of their situation, and Uziel’s script quickly internalizes that idea as an excuse to just do whatever. Manically riffing on “Sunshine,” “Interstellar,” “Alien,” and then “Event Horizon” in a mad dash to obscure the fact that the film looks like a basic cable episode of “Battlestar Galactica,” “The Cloverfield Paradox” illustrates the dangerous cognitive dissonance that can result from a painfully derivative movie about a situation where anything is possible.
The story spends 50 minutes establishing that matter is effectively re-writing itself, and then wastes the next 50 minutes watching the blandest astronauts of all time run around cheap sets and yell fake jargon at each other about fictional spaceship parts. Director Julius Onah (“The Girl is in Trouble”) seems totally powerless to make sense of things or ground any of the madness in real motivations; a blaring, busily noxious score is used to spackle the story together, but the only real conflict is watching the talented cast try to wriggle their way out of the soulless characters they’ve been forced to play; the only engaging mystery is how Debicki’s hair somehow looks more lustrous in each new scene.
Actually, that’s not true — don’t misunderstand, Debicki does look like she’s in the weirdest shampoo commercial ever shot (“Pantene: The space-time continuum might split, but your ends never will”), but other questions also nag at your attention. Chief among them: Does “The Cloverfield Paradox” feel like direct-to-video garbage because it premiered on Netflix, or did it premiere on Netflix because it feels like direct-to-video garbage? That one answers itself. Also: Why does it look like the Super Bowl ad cost more than the movie itself? And finally: Are they going to tie this story into the “Cloverfield” timeline?
That questions hangs in the air until the very last scene, a parting shot that feels like a direct slap in the face to anyone who’s been suckered into caring about this grand experiment in franchise storytelling. The only thing more insulting than watching this moment on your laptop would be sitting through it in a theater.
“The Cloverfield Paradox” may well prove to be a landmark moment in the history of movies, opening an inter-dimensional portal between films and their audiences. Quoth one of its characters: “This experiment could unleash chaos.” And maybe it will. Of course, we’ve all seen enough movies to know what tends to climb through inter-dimensional portals, and this godforsaken mess is as monstrous as they come. It’s worth remembering that the “Cloverfield” movies were only able to successfully disrupt conventional distribution methods because they’re good. The best thing you can say about this one is that it’s free with your Netflix subscription.