The Cloverfield Paradox

The Cloverfield Paradox

The curious thing with Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival was that the concept of the film was coordinated to the filmmaking. It was a film about communication, and one in which the audience comprehended its story in the same layers with which the characters unraveled the language of the cryptic aliens. I would not expect other films to be so deftly constructed, particularly those by untested directors for an anthology series under the mythic label of J.J. Abrams, a man who cares so much more for marketing than filmmaking that he could tease a shadowy new epic called “The Cloverfield Clarification” and make loads of cash from sponsors before anyone figured out it was a commercial for allergy medication.

However, I have not in recent memory seen a film whose concept is more divergent from its filmmaking than The Cloverfield Paradox. It is a movie so dumbfoundingly predictable and yet so incomprehensible that it becomes meaningless even as an average film, a paradox only in the sense that its grand pretensions cannot occupy the same space as the need to connect a franchise that was never intended to be cohesive. Plot points that intend to connect are literal contradictions in the series’ physical time-space. As a horror film, the only shock I got was from the credits, when I discovered that there was only one credited screenwriter for a film that felt like it was made by a committee of twelve, many of whom could speak the language of someone else but none of whom could talk to everyone.

For instance, with “paradox” in the title my assumption was that the film would have timeframes splitting apart in unnerving ways. It could have been abyssal and strange. I was hoping for something more in the vein of the art-house indie sci-fi that 10 Cloverfield Lane converted into claustrophobically creepy awe. The space station in The Cloverfield Paradox crosses into another dimension but the result is not rational enough to be unnerving. Science in The Twilight Zone was more grounded. Even if it aims for trans-physical body horror and space ghosts, I expected the characters to chase their shadow selves around corners as in Event Horizon, going mad with whispers and distortions made frightening by a motivated camera, and not just a motivated ad campaign. With a little savvy, a cold long shot of Gugu Mbatha-Raw could have made her like a new Dave Bowman, seeing across infinity in a moment to outlive her preconceptions of life as a three-dimensional mammal. But she just runs around looking worried. And she doesn’t find anything. I can’t think of a greater defeat than the intellect of your film comparing unfavorably to one by Paul W.S. Anderson.

But the shenanigans on the station are not only all without cause: even if they were explained perfectly, none of them are conceptually load-bearing. The film never builds the house that it spends two hours decorating. Chris O’Dowd’s arm detaches from his body and becomes sentient. (Why would I mention the name he has in the film, if the characters are not developed enough to mean more than the actors that impersonate them? Even Google and Rotten Tomatoes list only the actor's names.) You would think such a thing would be startling, or at least relevant. Worms appear inside Aksel Hennie’s skull cavity and dislocate his eye. The explanations for these phenomena aren’t on the film’s blueprints, which are cluttered with gags in the margins but don’t outline any structure to hang them on. Hennie pantomimes scenes from The Thing, The Fly, and Alien in a span of five minutes. That arm is even teased as a cheesy deus ex machina that doesn’t happen. In its place the films does nothing but pick off these genuine character actors one at a time, each giving their best to a script that doesn’t treat them better than Jason X treated its doomed space interns when it showed them how to eat vacuum.

Director Julius Onah doesn’t fail to understand the micro-allures of this kind of universe post-Chris Foss, who established this dystopic sterility with the human ship designs in Alien. Some highlights of mini-narrative in The Cloverfield Paradox include a 3d-printed bagel-like approximation of food, liquid metal putty that can be reformed by electric current into a sealant and applied like stucco caulk, and Cloverfield Station itself, which is introduced with slow, functional gravitas, in parts of revolutions, with appropriate interest from Bear McCreary’s moving, if blockbuster-typical score.

The story meanwhile gnaws with inconsistencies and hashed-together continuity. I don’t understand, for instance, how the imperiously alien Elizabeth Debicki appears on the ship if the Cloverfield Station in this alternate dimension exploded. I don’t understand how Chris O’Dowd’s disembodied arm can write them clues to their situation. And I certainly don’t understand that ending, which puts us at a closer view of a tiny detail from the first film (a satellite crashing into the sea) with a full-throttle reveal shot of the first film’s monster, “Clover.” Never mind the fact that this cannot be the same monster from the first film, or the same satellite (this is the future, not 2008, and the monster in the first film was galloping among the skyscrapers, not bursting through clouds).

Most egregious is how this reveal shot pulverizes the appeal of the entire series, which has not been this monster but the secret mystique of how these horrible things may be subtly connected. To show her (?) in full-view, roaring like Godzilla, as though she’s a “thing” and this is a “series,” is as irreparably inconsistent as Darth Vader dancing Gangnam Style (which, if you’ve been to Disney lately, you might know that he does now).

Somehow, this doesn’t surprise me among recent trends, like turning the old cast of Star Wars into Simon West-esque ensemble cameos, and the abuse of recognizable properties in films like Transformers and Star Trek: Into Darkness (observe how many of these examples directly involve Mr. Abrams). But nothing in The Cloverfield Paradox is assigned a proper task, even as proper as recognition – the monster is the last casualty in a list as long as the cast. Chris O’Dowd can rouse laughter in other genres but in this one he sticks out like Bill Paxton’s camp character in Aliens transferred out of his element to Alien. O’Dowd’s comedic interjections sweat with the desperation of a writer unsure of his tone, hoping that several thrown together in a cloud chamber will bond to create a beautiful new element. Why doesn’t the production know, if we do, that they will certainly bounce off each other without meaning? Zhang Ziyi soars in Zhang Yimou action films, but Onah ties her down to a role that could have been fulfilled by a moody pre-teen. Daniel Brühl, David Oyelowo, John Ortiz: all MIA.

The science is so blurry that it actively misleads the characters to wander around their subplots until the science kills them. In between, they are motivated only by the dullest archetypes. Oyelowo says, “I’m the commander of this station. I have to do this. There’s no other way.” Someone points out that what he’s doing can be accomplished remotely but he makes no reply to this. He’s the captain. He just read the script. Time to die. If it was more ironic it could be a Rick and Morty bit (remember Dr. Bloom’s anti-heroic death: “Wait! Okay, never mind, I wanted to sacrifice myself anywaaaaayyy!”).

Most baffling of all, we occasionally cut back to Mbatha-Raw’s husband on Earth 1 (Roger Davies), as he drives around, briefly sees a giant shape moving in smoke, and saves a little girl (played by Clover Nee …). Remember that we’ll never see these characters again, so travelling to earth over and over only depressurizes the film’s tension. I have a similar problem with The Shining, in which the lonely oppression of the hotel is consistently negated by cut-aways of Dick Halloran on his way back to save the day. But that was a cut to a few miles away – it can’t hold a blow-torch to the lurching unease of moving back and forth between dimensions as though it’s nothing, in a film where it’s everything. Is that the paradox?

The averageness of The Cloverfield Paradox in concept and in plodding, misaligned details of dubious scientific merit does not set it apart among Event Horizon, Life, and so on. It would certainly sit proudly at home among the B-movie concept schlock of the 70s like Silent Running. Even uprooting and wringing the appeal of its series is not so wrong to most audiences, as the Cloverfield name implies neither consistency nor quality. But to me, the marketing of these films created experiences beyond the plot, which buzzed over internet forums and in the minds of those who liked chewing on a cinematic puzzle. I enjoyed having my own film series to discover from the ground floor, for once not being spoon-fed a franchise’s twenty-year-old twists for the sake of someone else’s nostalgia high. The other two films presented an imaginative dilemma, and were good enough on their to leave the rest up to you. Even in ruining all this, The Cloverfield Paradox is, I must admit in the face of a solid production, decent performances, and nice cinematography by a reigned-in Dan Mindel, only mediocre.

But where it becomes into its stupefying badness like a scientist shedding his flesh chunks into a bona-fide Cronenberg horror is in how it presents itself. The first ad appeared during the Super Bowl and later that very night without any other announcement, the film skipped the theater at which it was doomed to sail under our noses, vaulted over the bargain bins and thrift store DVD racks, and squirted out onto Netflix. The presumption is astounding, that this film is good enough for such a stunt. It is so unworthy of its sales pitch that it could only be called a marketing scam where a film should be, which drew people in with a juicy tag (“10 years ago something happened. You should know why”) and then tortured them with a film that offered no such explanation, even if such a thing was desirable to begin with.

The Cloverfield Paradox does live up to its title in this way: it is as unconnected to the other films in its series as they were to each other, but it paradoxically acts every minute like it’s a prequel of some daunting import made on the summit of man’s knowledge. It is the antithesis of its namesake while being the one that was supposed to elevate its entire concept, a prophet who elegantly stole his way into the temple of his god and covered the place in pee. Such a half-breed monster could only come from Abrams’ pantheon of neo-marketers and franchise-snatchers. The gods had to rape cows to get to this point.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Director

Julius Onah

Writer

Oren Uziel (story and screenplay)

Doug Jung (story)

Main Cast

 

Ava Hamilton Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Kiel David Oyelowo
Ernst Schmidt Daniel Brühl
Mina Jensen Elizabeth Debicki
Mundy Chris O'Dowd
Volkov Aksel Hennie
Tam Zhang Ziyi

Official Trailer

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