The Cloverfield Paradox wastes no time establishing monumental stakes: within the first 20 minutes, we’re told that a global energy crisis has plunged the Earth into mayhem. A small group of astronauts aboard the Cloverfield space station is nearly out of fuel as they look for a solution to the crisis. Meanwhile, some have theorized that the Cloverfield’s dangerous outer space tests will only put humanity in more danger. It’s a premise ripe for suspense and heady philosophical implications.
Then the film exceeds the 20-minute mark, and The Cloverfield Paradox reveals that it can’t get past its own premise. Despite the efforts of an overqualified cast, this third film in the cult science-fiction horror series becomes an aimless jumble of tropes that fails to engage emotionally or intellectually.
The fundamental flaw that topples The Cloverfield Paradox like a house of cards is its belief that absolute chaos is compelling even without logic, reason, or thematic consistency. From the moment things go wrong onboard the space station, the film doles out cruel and unusual punishment that occurs at random. There’s body horror, mechanical malfunctions, creepy crawlies, growing distrust between characters, and unexplained distortions of reality. Through crudely inserted sequences, we also see explosions and the shape of a giant monster back on Earth. This “anything goes” approach to storytelling can be fun if it serves a bigger idea (think The Cabin in the Woods and its critique of the horror genre). But this film can’t connect the dots. The lack of structure and causality robs the material of tension, and it gets boring fast.
Another way The Cloverfield Paradox could have made this style work is if it filtered all the disorder through dynamic, well-drawn characters. And to be fair, there are attempts to do that here. The protagonist, Ava Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), has the clearest arc: she suffers from some trauma, which she has to confront throughout the film. But everyone else serves mainly as cannon fodder for the film’s machinations. It’s a diverse set of people, but they don’t add any insight to Hamilton’s character or the larger crisis at hand. Most disappointing of all is Mina Jensen (Elizabeth Debicki), whose third act development seemingly contradicts her set-up and is just another wrench thrown into the plot.
Ava Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw)
Director Julius Onah isn’t quite able to balance the disparate elements, though it would’ve been difficult to make much of this script work. Onah also makes a mistake many horror directors commit: he places far more emphasis on how people are killed than on the people themselves. And while all of us have had fun looking forward to how people get destroyed in franchises like Saw and Final Destination, this disregard for character stops The Cloverfield Paradox from possessing the kind of weight and intelligence it wants to have.
With that said, Onah still displays skill in assembling these sequences of horror. Impressive makeup and visual effects (especially for an online-exclusive film) make character deaths feels appropriately painful. Meanwhile, the Cloverfield station itself is a pretty well realized setting. Long, foreboding corridors do a lot to enhance the atmosphere, and certain objects and tools seen throughout the film are far more memorable than many of the characters.
And if the movie really succeeds in any one area, it’s in the performances from the ensemble cast. Mbatha-Raw clearly communicates deep-seated grief and desperation even with all the crazy things happening around her. Debicki is strange and otherworldly from the very moment you see her. David Oyelowo and Daniel Brühl are the only reasons bring much more gravitas to their characters than they deserve. And Chris O’Dowd is naturally the most charming actor to watch, as he functions as the film’s only source of levity.
But The Cloverfield Paradox’s shenanigans eventually overtake the performances, and overshadow all of the hype that the film suddenly generated. This movie will likely be most remembered for its almost complete lack of marketing, premiering on Netflix just a couple hours after it was announced at the Super Bowl. It was a bold move that would have paid off better if The Cloverfield Paradox was as inventive as its release. Unfortunately, it stays content with borrowing ideas from other horror movies, and is yet another film that attempts to build a cinematic universe out of a series that doesn’t need it.
The Cloverfield Paradox is streaming on Netflix.