Written by: Oren Uziel and Doug Jung
Directed by: Julius Onah
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, and Daniel Brühl
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Logic doesn't apply to any of this."
It’s fitting that The Cloverfield Paradox—the latest film to borrow J.J. Abrams’s mystery box branding—deals in alternate realities because it provides a glimpse into that other universe where John Carpenter actually did reconfigure Halloween into an anthology series. Where that franchise’s attempt to escape the shadow of The Shape was met with indifference, this one proved that there was life beyond its giant monster in 10 Cloverfield Lane, an intimate paranoiac thriller that couldn’t be much more different from its predecessor. It was particularly exciting as a proof of concept: here was a chance to put the combined might of Abrams’s clout and this title’s appeal into any number of stories, however loosely-connected they may be. With The Cloverfield Paradox, Abrams—and the folks at the helm of the film that was once titled God Particle—have Frankensteined together another franchise extension, albeit one that actually seems more interested in justifying its title, a turn of events that’ll excite or disappoint depending on just how much you want these things to connect.
To its credit, Paradox also boasts a wildly different premise, at least: most of it is set away from Earth, aboard the orbiting Cloverfield Space Station, where a team of international scientists have gathered to test a particle accelerator they hope will help solve a global energy crisis. With the world on the brink of war, tensions are running high, especially after spending a couple of fruitless years at space in a futile search for any sign of hope. When that sign finally arrives—the accelerator finally produces a sustainable energy beam—it’s almost immediately met with disaster when an overload causes the station’s power to surge. Even more distressing: the earth is nowhere to be found, and the crew can’t be sure if they’ve blown it away or simply been blown away from it, flung across the stars, stranded far from home.
Other possibilities abound—after all, what if the ravings of a conspiracy theorist (Donal Logue) back on Earth are true? What if they’ve ripped a hole in the fabric of space-time and introduced interdimensional chaos upon the world? What if monsters will now spill onto the Earth they’ve left behind (assuming it’s even still there?) What if they’ve somehow travelled to another dimension themselves? Eventually, the film cycles through pretty much every possibility, largely to its detriment—The Cloverfield Paradox can never quite settle down as it fidgets through various modes and story beats, none of which are served to their fullest potential.
But that doesn’t mean the film still isn’t rollickingly entertaining, at least when it first begins its scatterbrained attempt at introducing chaos. It’s at its best here, when it’s appealing to lizard brain sensibilities in the wake of the station’s power surge: taking on the tenor of a straight-up horror movie, Paradox runs the gamut of imagining Cronenberg-esque body mutilations to Raimi-style gags involving dismembered, sentient limbs. Worms explode from another crew member’s body, leaving you to wonder if the hard science fiction guiding the premise is nothing but window dressing.
Not that there’d be anything wrong with that, of course. The Cloverfield Paradox is an awesome little riff on other space horror staples, which doesn’t make it particularly inventive, to be sure; it does, however, inspire a stretch that feels like The Evil Dead reimagined in space. There’s a truly chaotic verve to it all that captures the confusion and desperation aboard the Cloverfield. Like the crew members, you can’t help but wonder what in the hell is going on: what’s the deal with the emergence of a mysterious new crew member (Elizabeth Debicki), who arrives literally fused within the walls? How is a gyroscope suddenly stowed away in a cadaver—and, better yet, how does a severed arm point the crew in the right direction?
Once Paradox starts to answer these questions, it loses its momentum and begins to unravel a bit in an attempt to veer away from visceral, shlock horror towards a more existential, mind-bending dread. It’s not an altogether disappointing turn of events, especially since I’m a sucker for the interdimensional angle it introduces—it’s just that it is a bit at odds with what preceded it in terms of tone and style. Here, it settles for having Gugu Mbatha-Raw resurface as the film’s lead in the role of Ava Hamilton, a brilliant scientist reeling from the loss of her children in a house fire some years ago. She’s left behind her husband (Roger Davies) on Earth, who is forced to endure his own otherworldly encounter when the city is besieged by a large—and largely unseen—menace. His subplot is largely divorced from the rest of the film, existing as a connective tissue for the brand name more than anything—he even finds himself holed up with another survivor in a fallout bunker, a turn of events that seems to cheekily nod towards 10 Cloverfield Lane.
Ava’s story, however, is threaded well through the larger dimension-bending implications. While it never quite resonates to the emotional depths required of it (mostly because it’s surrounded by such a noisy plot), it’s certainly no fault of Mbatha-Raw, whose tremendous performance captures a mother’s grief and desperation, effectively anchoring the film with the sort of human dynamic we’ve come to expect from this franchise. She’s surrounded by a remarkable cast that also boasts the likes of David Oyelowo (as the station’s dignified, level-headed leader), Chris O’Dowd (providing the levity even when his arm is crawling about the station on its own), and Daniel Bruhl (appearing as a shifty German officer who may or may not be conspiring to sabotage the mission).
But the other real standout here is Debicki as that mysterious crew member. At no point does she seem trustworthy, even when she’s trying to comfort Ava: there’s something slightly cold and detached about her turn that vaguely recalls Ian Holm’s Ash, an act puts the audience on edge, waiting to see what further disaster she’ll bring aboard a station that’s already in shambles and hurtling through space. With so much going on, it’s tough for Paradox to gain traction, but it also means it’s never boring: there’s always some new sequence (of course there’s an ill-fated space jump to repair the station among them) awaiting around every corner. There’s a breathless quality to it guided by just enough sci-fi headiness that it at least leaves an impression—even if it’s not quite as deep as the mark left by the previous Cloverfield movies.
Speaking of which, Paradox eventually does circle around to reveal this franchise’s apparent overarching direction. It does so with a playful final shot that just further muddles the film’s tone and plot, resulting in an even more slapdash, uneven feel. Where 10 Cloverfield Lane only felt like a shameless overlaying of a brand on an otherwise unrelated movie, this feels like an even more egregious attempt to gracelessly cram God Particle into the Cloverfield universe. Largely accomplished by the tacked on earthbound scenes here, it results in a gangly, unwieldy film that’s constantly in search of some kind of identity. Ultimately, the earth scenes basically serve as a long setup to the punchline that is that final shot, which either lands like an ellipsis or an exclamation point depending on your persuasion.
Personally, I could have done without it—I love the idea of Cloverfield functioning as a pure anthology instead of a series of interconnected films, especially since Paradox introduces a perfect framing device with its multi-dimensional madness. Granted, I’m sure I’ll come around, especially since Paramount supposedly has more in the pipeline—I just hope they leave us with more to talk about than viral campaigns or surprise Netflix debuts. Obviously, Cloverfield has built its bones on impressive marketing; however, the previous films at least lived up to it.
Paradox, on the other hand, is mostly just fine and worthwhile enough: director Julius Onah is obviously skilled behind the camera, as he wrings suspense, paranoia, and squeamish sights from the story’s claustrophobic confines. Eventually, the grab bag script becomes a bit too unwieldy, and his reach exceeds its grasp. Ironic, then, that this Frankenstein's monster of a movie misses the primary warning of Mary Shelley's cautionary tale.
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