The Cloverfield Paradox (directed by Julius Onah) starts out strong. After an emotional conversation with her husband, protagonist Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) decides to go on a mission into space that might solve the world’s current energy crisis. The filmmakers effectively use the opening credits as an opportunity for a wordless montage that conveys the multi-year length of the mission and the frustration of the space station’s crew as they continue to fail to solve the problem. In a scene not long after the montage, Onah visually realizes Hamilton’s grief over the loss of her children in a clever way that had me thinking I was about to watch a solid sci-fi movie from a gifted visual storyteller. This initial assessment turned out to be very wrong. Julius Onah may have some directorial chops but The Cloverfield Paradox is far from a solid sci-fi movie. In fact, Paradox is the worst Cloverfield movie by a wide stretch and singlehandedly burns up a lot of the goodwill generated by the previous franchise entries.
The main gimmick of the film is that a particle accelerator used by the crew to solve the energy crisis ends up malfunctioning, resulting in multiple dimensions collapsing in on one another. This set up basically gives the filmmakers unlimited freedom to cook up whatever weird horrific imagery or tense action scene that they want (imagine what James Wan or any similarly imaginative horror directors would do with a premise like this one). The entire second act is basically comprised of the crew doing busy work and waiting to get affected by the interdimensional events. The first of these scenes is strong, with a crew member literally being stuck in the wall. It is effective body horror and I couldn’t help but squirm in my chair seeing the wires and pipes imbedded in her. The following sequences are mostly duds. There is some really goofy business with a severed arm and a couple beats that try to push similar body horror buttons to the first but they all fail. It is a really curious thing to watch the movie go this far off the rails so abruptly. Rarely has a movie shifted from making me squirm to making me unintentionally laugh with such seamlessness.
Strong characters could have saved this film but, except for Hamilton, the filmmakers have all but forgotten to flesh out the main cast. The theoretically interesting and diverse crew is full of good actors and I was eagerly waiting to get to know anything about them. Instead, we learn early on that the crew is comprised of a couple interchangeable astronauts, “the asshole” and “the funny one” and proceed to cease any further character development from there. Hamilton is a solid lead and I came away from the movie genuinely thinking that Mbatha-Raw could be a star if she gets better opportunities than this one in the future. She has an emotionally satisfying arc, which is almost frustrating. The filmmakers know how to do this stuff so why aren’t they doing it with anyone else? The sad fact is that even though Hamilton is a more three-dimensional character than any of her peers, she’s not compelling enough to salvage a whole movie filled with generic and forgettable fodder like the rest of the crew.
The film’s flaws are made more confounding by its profoundly poor use of time. There is a useless B-plot about Hamilton’s husband running around on Earth that takes up 15 minutes of screen time and contributes nothing at all to the plot. I’m serious, you could clip it all out and the movie would be the better for it. Of course, they can’t do that because this movie is supposed to be the secret origin of the extended Cloverfield cinematic universe (he said with a palpable exasperation in his voice) and the Earth stuff needs stay around to establish that the titular Cloverfield Paradox has indeed occurred and what its effects are. The movie ends up sacrificing the time that it should be spending on characterization to do a lot of stuff that ends up contributing exactly nothing to the narrative. It’s ironic because 10 Cloverfield Lane is a compelling example of how this model can work correctly. It is a perfectly functional movie that works just as well for Easter Egg hunting fans and newbies alike. By contrast, Paradox feels like the cinematic equivalent of the crew member in the wall, with the obvious reshoots and useless franchise connections incongruently and disturbingly jammed into it.
If the movie had leaned into some of the goofiness, it could have worked as low rent genre fair of the kind people used to stumble upon on Syfy while scrolling through cable channels. Unfortunately, it takes itself mostly seriously when the great Chris O’Dowd isn’t on screen and it doesn’t end up having the strength of character or craft to be worthwhile in any respect. When this movie was originally conceived, it was entitled The God Particle and had no relationship at all to Cloverfield. While it is unlikely that The God Particle would have been the next Alien before all the meddling, I can’t help but feel like it might have been a functional movie. I can’t say the same for The Cloverfield Paradox, I can just hope that the next installment in the franchise bears a stronger resemblance to the other two Cloverfield films.