Director: Julius Onah
Stars: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl
If there’s one thing guaranteed to piss off the critics, it’s getting excluded from the established pattern of pre-release screeners. Take a peek at ‘Film Twitter’ immediately after the surprise Super Bowl announcement that The Cloverfield Paradox would be available to stream on Netflix after the game by anyone, and you’ll find a number of high-profile voices trying to find different ways of saying, basically, “It’s not fair!”. Levelling the playing field like this raises something of a smirk. The Schadenfreude is palpable. But it’s really just a new method of dealing with an old problem…
Both Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield and Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane were traditional cinematic releases (give or take). In order for it’s sneak-attack to work, Julius Onah’s flick relies on a far more immediate method of transference. Shit, you could be watching it right now on your phone. There’s something to be said for such widespread availability, such immediacy. Unparalleled convenience (so long as you have an account, obviously). But it has its drawbacks, too. Scale is lost, unless you happen to have a personal theatre bolted into your mansion, along with the sense of reverence that a cinema space conjures (even going twice a week, on average, I still feel how special the space is every time). In addition, the rate and carelessness of Netflix’s release schedule also removes any sense of gravitas. The service has notoriously poor quality control. A new ‘Original’ is this generation’s straight-to-VHS; it’s likely to be any old shit.
In keeping with the traditions of the burgeoning anthology series, The Cloverfield Paradox bares scant resemblance to its forebearers, but contains tonal and thematic holdovers. We’re more firmly in the realms of sci-fi than ever, and the pressure-cooker closed environment that made 10 Cloverfield Lane so gripping is rekindled in the form of a multinational space station. In the near future, with Earth’s resources running low and conflicts on the rise, a mission is sent into space to test a particle accelerator with hopes of discovering the answers to all humanity’s problems. We join the crew two years into the mission following a series of disheartening failures. The latest test seems to work, but has unintended side effects for the crew and the station. What follows is a grab bag of nuttiness liable to give Prometheus a run for its money, the specific details of which it feels far too early to go into.
Exec produced by J.J. Abrams once again, The Cloverfield Paradox also affords another up and coming name the opportunity to make their presence felt. Following in the footsteps of Matt Reeves and Dan Trachtenberg, Julius Onah has a tough job creating anything nearly so distinctive. He’s hampered by a script that struggles to bring substantive originality to territory we’ve traversed before in one guise or another. His shooting style is unfussy. Mercifully the found footage angle of Reeves’ debut is eschewed once again but, functional as his work is, it doesn’t measure up to the wonderful sleek economy of Trachtenberg’s effort. In keeping with the disposable nature of its release, The Cloverfield Paradox feels like a special television event rather than a fully fledged feature.
Once again the main order of the day is intended suspense, as the situation stacks up a series of assumed hole cards. Where previous entries kept the immediacy on point and cannily toyed with assumptions – keeping the audience guessing – Onah’s film lacks a sense of unity and, ahem, Coherence. Where Onah is blessed, however, is in his dream ensemble cast, led by the great Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle, Black Mirror). With the aid of the likes of Daniel Brühl, John Ortiz and Ziyi Zhang, he is able to create a credible multinational ensemble. There’s even room for Chris O’Dowd to inject a healthy, even overbearing degree of levity. Yet with a far wider spread of characters and an ADHD approach to storytelling, getting to know these people is a trickier request. Too often we’re merely contending with ciphers. Too many great actors just aren’t served by the material. And the script contains howlers that even the mighty David Oyelowo can’t salvage.
Rumours were abound that Paramount’s nerve cracked following the box office failures of Ghost In The Shell and Transformers: The Last Knight; that this led to the decision to jump into bed with Netflix for this one, afraid of another sci-fi turkey. Looking now at the finished product, one might readily understand such reservations. Given a more traditional release with press screeners and premium ticket prices, one might well expect a less than enthusiastic reception. The simple reason being that The Cloverfield Paradox isn’t particularly good. Suddenly the rush release feels less like another canny marketing gimmick to one-up its predecessors and more like a salvage job.
10 Cloverfield Lane appeared eight years after the first flick, and remains one of the great populist suspense thrillers of the decade (Trachtenberg is a name to watch, mark my words). Perhaps its great success (a hill I’m prepared to die on) stems from the time taken to get there. Decent enough to while away a couple of hours on the sofa out of boredom or curiosity, The Cloverfield Paradox feels far less precious. It’s hasty, silly and rarely anything close to exciting. But if slowing down is what’s going to save this series then news that shooting is already complete on the fourth installment doesn’t bode well at all.