The Cloverfield Paradox (2018) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

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Humanity is on the brink of global war over dwindling energy supplies.  Ava Hamilton reluctantly joins the crew of the Cloverfield space station hoping to find a conduit to infinite energy through dangerous quantum experiments.  Julius Onah directs The Cloverfield Paradox, with the screenplay written by Oren Uziel, and stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Elizabeth Debicki, and Chris O'Dowd.

Be it post-credits sequences setting up later stories, or labyrinthine marketing schemes where lore-heavy diaries are distributed to hardcore fans, it's feeling increasingly like anticipation for the product is the product.  The Cloverfield films aren't patient zero for this phenomenon but producer J.J. Abrams has it clear he will not let an opportunity for marketing go to waste.  The Cloverfield Paradox was kept as tight a secret as possible and went live on Netflix after a trailer aired during last week's Superbowl.  That's a long ways from the time he created several websites to pose many questions about LOST's DHARMA  Initiative that wouldn't be answered, but considering the way internet hounds sniff out the first sentences of upcoming films it was nice to have the product immediately without months of speculation.

Which is a shame for director Julius Onah and screenwriter Oren Uziel.  It's unlikely I would have watched The Cloverfield Paradox without Abrams' marketing, yet its ties to the Cloverfield films are the weakest moments of an otherwise fun film.  Studios are so reluctant to take chances on original properties that any better-than-average science-fiction film has a better chance of being made as part of a franchise than being made at all. Best to cut the losses where I can, appreciate The Cloverfield Paradox for what it is, and celebrate that it exists at all.

While the scenes on Earth are painfully tacked on, director Julius Onah taps into bargain-basement special effects magic to evocative affect.

So what is The Cloverfield Paradox?  An entertaining mess for starters.  Onah's direction is steady even when dealing with the hastily tacked-on Cloverfield lore.  You might feel some visual confusion going from the scenes onboard the garishly lit tech-heavy Cloverfield space station to the backlot b-reel feel of the moments set on Earth.  But Onah's game, and follows the great trick of the original Cloverfield by utilizing old school special effects like smoke and shadow projection to suggest danger instead of modeling it in perfect computer images.  This is rough, but charming, and I liked how Onah manages to combine science-fictions origins through these quick Earth bits through to the bigger budget visuals on the Cloverfield station.

Cinematographer Dan Mindel helps solidify the goofy, if sincere, vibe of The Cloverfield Paradox with some nauseating camera work.  There's a sly throwback to the train wreck that was Battlefield Earth as the camera tilts in shots stationary and in-motion.  The moment that sold it as a joke for me was when Jensen (Elizabeth Debicki) receives bad news and the camera tilts so much I thought it was going to do a 360 with her face around the frame.  Onah and Mindel have some affecting moments as well, the highlight here a long empty tracking shot with the crew arguing in the background as the face of Kiel (David Oyelowo), huddled and crying in a corner, takes up almost half the screen.  Oyelowo is a tremendous talent, but that long empty shot solidifies the isolating weight his command places on his psyche.

This brings me to The Cloverfield Paradox's ace - the cast any "serious" drama would kill for.  It's got Oyelowo, Debicki, Zhang Ziyi, and a tiny part for Donal Logue (love the detail of Logue's scientist doing international interviews hunched over a webcam.)  They're all excellent with a special note to Chris O'Dowd who mines great laughs from absurd situations by accepting them on face value and stating the obvious.  Gugu Mbatha-Raw completes the performance dominance of The Cloverfield Paradox by imbuing every one of her scenes with a barely repressed sense of loss.  She is incapable of uttering an insincere line and that skill serves her well when she's spouting communication officer technobabble one moment then quietly memorializing her family the next.

Uziel's script is passable with the occasional nice touch. The parallel dimensions angle of The Cloverfield Paradox is nothing new, but odd little details like an arm with a mind of its own and horrific moments like a flash-freeze that kills one crew member are inventive enough to keep things chugging along.  My primary beef is how parallel dimensions always seem to open up to the most dramatically potent universe.  The excellent, for a time, television series Sliders knew how to have fun with parallel dimensions by altering tiny details or thrusting its cast from one extreme to the other.  Here the dimension shift affects only two characters in any dramatically meaningful way, which is a letdown considering the stacked cast and infinite possibilities of parallel dimensions.

This ends about as you'd expect but the screenplay has fun with the results and the performers gamely go along with the absurdity.

All this builds to a final shot that's as unfair as it is darkly hilarious. I have no use for the Cloverfield lore and - as hinted by the thrown together nature of the scenes on Earth - neither do Onah or Uziel.  In this line of thinking the end of The Cloverfield Paradox is a neat summation of how I, and possibly they, feel.  Franchises with their bloating budgets and constant need to reinforce a universe of knowledge for viewers to puzzle over are destroying original work that could be polished up to stand on its own or, as is the case here, get bowled over by a franchise then submit to its will while hoping for the best.

There may be few options for working outside the system but I'll take whatever tiny jabs small filmmakers can dish out.  With any luck, The Cloverfield Paradox will free room for Onah and Uziel to make their own film without having to cater to an existing universe of masturbatory lore-servicing.  If not, at least this messy bit of fun went down as it came in - swinging for the fences and smashing into a monster.

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The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

Directed by Julius Onah.
Screenplay written by Oren Uziel.
Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Elizabeth Debicki, and Chris O'Dowd.

Posted by Andrew

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