Review: The Cloverfield Paradox

In the new Netflix original The Cloverfield Paradox, a failed science experiment sends a ship’s crew to a parallel Earth. Watching the movie, I also thought about alternate realities: worlds where stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw and David Oyelowo and Daniel Brühl get films equal to their talents; worlds where movies follow the lead of 10 Cloverfield Lane and use the franchise name to tell big-budget versions of unique sci-fi stories; worlds where Life is still the worst Alien knockoff in recent memory.

But since this is our only reality, we have to talk about what The Cloverfield Paradox actually is.

The Cloverfield Paradox is the Platonic ideal of a Netflix movie. There is some fantastic stuff here, ranging from outstanding performances from Mbatha-Raw and Oyelowo to fun gory bits involving worms exploding from a corpse. Anyone who looks up from doing their taxes or dishes or whatever odd job will be fully entertained by those moments. And then those people can return to their primary tasks and assume that the movie connects the dots between the cool stuff.

It doesn’t, and most of the blame falls on director Julius Onah. That’s not to say that Oren Uziel’s script (from a story he conceived with Doug Jung) works; in fact, it barely reaches a functional level. We understand who each character is — Oyelowo the emotional captain, Mbatha-Raw the wounded protagonist, Chris O’Dowd the comic relief — but they get little to do except state their motivations.

And while the parallel universe conceit does allow for a couple of effective grossouts, the movie’s plotting reduces its charms to non sequiturs. It’s neat that the corpse has lots of worms in it, but why didn’t other stuff end up in there? It’s interesting that various nations are working together, but why is Tam (played by Chinese star Ziyi Zhang) pulling a Chewbacca and only speaking Mandarin to her Anglophonic shipmates?

In fact, the movie finds a way to turn almost all of its strengths into weaknesses. The cast puts in top-notch work, particularly Mbutha-Raw, Oyelowo, and Roger Davies; but their talents serve one-dimensional characters and unearned emotional beats.

Davies gets the worst of it. He plays a man connected to Mbutha-Raw’s scientist, but exists almost entirely in his own side plot that serves no purpose other than referencing other Cloverfield films. Despite acting against nothing but a disembodied telephone voice or text messages or a sleeping little girl, Davies feels like a real person in an absurd situation.

Onah’s direction wastes those performances (and those cool gore moments!) in this mess of a film. The tone is all over the place, not only in the ways I’ve already mentioned, but perhaps most egregiously with O’Dowd’s character, whose jokes feel tame compared to the crazy things occurring on the ship, thus dulling the effect of them both.

Although he’s clearly following Ridley Scott’s realistic take in Alien, the Paul W.S. Anderson schlock classic Event Horizon should have been Onah’s guide. With more Sam Neill and Lawrence Fishburne style scene-chewing and less realism, this movie would have been far more memorable.

But such thinking brings us back to alternate worlds, and that’s not where The Cloverfield Paradox exists. Instead, it’s just a movie on Netflix, made to be watched as you fall asleep after spending too much time scrolling through the “Recently Added” section.

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