Review by C.J. Bunce
How far back has this latest chapter in J.J. Abrams mash-up of science fiction and giant monsters been brewing? Back to his 2011 summer coming of age release Super 8? Like M. Night Shyamalan, all of Abrams’ projects, whether as executive producer or director or even writer-director, may not be successful, but they both take exciting risks with their projects. Cloverfield was a well-crafted homage to Godzilla pictures. 10 Cloverfield Lane was a genre surprise, a mix of straight dramatic horror that ended up as a sci-fi monster movie. And this week Netflix released a theatrical worthy next installment, The Cloverfield Paradox, this time providing that relentless sci-fi horror fix perfected with James Cameron’s Aliens. And like Shyamalan’s recent thriller Split, a cool surprise is in store for viewers.
The Cloverfield Paradox is easily comparable to one of the best Doctor Who space station-based episodes (think The Waters of Mars). In fact absent Matt Smith or David Tennant you might forget you’re not watching Doctor Who as so many tropes from Whovian space disaster episodes are weaved into the film. And that’s a good thing for fans of the type of science fiction stories that Doctor Who tends to attract. The cast of The Cloverfield Paradox forms a crew you wish would be around for a TV series. Led by David Oyelowo (Star Wars: Rebels, Jack Reacher) as Commander Kiel, with physicists played by Daniel Brühl (Rush, Goodbye Lenin, Captain America: Civil War) as Schmidt and Ziyi Zhang (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Rush Hour 2) as Tam, and other crewmembers played by John Ortiz (Kong: Skull Island, Alien vs. Predator), Aksel Hennie (The Martian), and Chris O’Dowd (Thor: The Dark World), the space station Cloverfield has a legitimate international crew. But the focus is on crewmember Hamilton played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beauty and the Beast, Jupiter Ascending), who leaves her husband (Roger Davies) back on Earth after her children die in a fire to help the scientists test a particle accelerator. The success or failure of that test could mean a leap ahead for the planet or certain doom.
Anyone who has ever read an issue of DC Comics can understand the multi-verse science here. Dabbling in quantum physics comes with uncertain risks, and after nearly a year of failed trials, when the station finally creates a stable particle beam, something has changed. Leaving the audience always wondering whether this is going to be another Aliens episode or something else, the effect of the anomaly creates the stuff of The Philadelphia Experiment, smashing one reality into another. One of the results is the appearance from another parallel universe of a Cloverfield physicist played by Elizabeth Debicki (Guardians of the Galaxy 2, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.). Only Debicki’s character was not on the mission in the universe the film started out in, and as radio signals reflect an apparently altered Earth below, the loyalties of the crewmembers come into question. It’s all great fun, and the production quality is good enough–with bonuses like crew costumes from Academy Award-winning designer Colleen Atwood–that it’s a shame audiences can’t watch this play out on a big movie theater screen.
This new world of releasing a multi-million dollar, big budget film directly to Netflix is a bit of a strange concept. On the one hand none of the films have merited the kind of acclaim you’d find in the best of any year’s films. War Machine, Bright, and now The Cloverfield Paradox are all entertaining films, but they also have a ring of the old neighborhood video store direct to video shelf. Is Netflix getting its money’s worth, and are audiences really getting movie quality productions? The Cloverfield Paradox is better than all but the first two Alien films and mainstream space dramas like Armageddon or Interstellar. It’s on par with Abrams’ past sci-fi films, and it is overall more interesting than middle-of-the-road sci-fi films like Event Horizon, Mission to Mars, or Arrival. But it’s not a blockbuster epic or a thought-provoking sci-fi arthouse or indie film like Ex Machina or Midnight Special, so expect critics to be confused and pan it in response. And although it’s a plus not to have seen any trailers for the film and have no expectations, what kind of marketing strategist advised Netflix to surprise audiences by dropping it on subscribers with only a few hours notice Sunday evening during the Super Bowl?
As with Abrams’ surprisingly good 10 Cloverfield Lane, it’s the final scene that provides the ultimate twist, and stitches the Cloverfield trilogy together. A state-of-the-art space station, future technology gizmos, and an easy to absorb story from a smart script all make for a fun two hours of outer-space action.
Listen for the voices of frequent Abrams collaborators and genre favorites Simon Pegg and Greg Grunberg. And Gotham’s Donal Logue has a brief role as a They Live-inspired television skeptic.
Fans of Philip K. Dick’s stories or the Electric Dreams series, Black Mirror, and Doctor Who will have little effort enjoying The Cloverfield Paradox. It’s available now only on Netflix.