Film discussion

Overlord: looking back at… The Cloverfield Paradox

With Overlord now arriving on Netflix, we glance back at JJ Abrams' last producing project...

As release strategies go, The Cloverfield Paradox had one of the greatest in recent memory; its very first trailer played to millions during the Super Bowl which announced the release date as being straight after that very game of American football on the famed streaming service Netflix.

It was a move that was brave, brilliant, bold, but which also should have rung the alarm bells as to the film that had been made because make no mistake, The Cloverfield Paradox is a very messy film indeed.

What makes it a big shame that the film is such a mess is not just because it shares part of its name with Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane, it’s that one can see so much potential for excellence, it just gets lost amongst nonsensical plotting, uninteresting characters and an inability to actually know what film it wants to be.

Like 10 Cloverfield Lane, which began life as a separate film entitled The Cellar before producer JJ Abrams decided to link it to the surprise hit Cloverfield, The Cloverfield Paradox began life as The God Particle, a stand-alone science fiction thriller that was bought by Paramount Pictures and Bad Robot and subsequently retooled to fit into the larger Cloverfield universe.

The resulting film that became 10 Cloverfield Lane was wonderful, a claustrophobic thriller that teased audiences with any potential link to the “first” film but which worked even better as a claustrophobic, intense three-hander between its cast.

The Cloverfield Paradox begins strongly for sure, and there are a lot of things to like with it that almost make it worth recommending despite that low Rotten Tomatoes score and general negativity that surrounded the film once the hype over its release strategy died down.

The film opens with incredible promise, with Ava (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, delivering the film’s best performance and very much its MVP) and her husband Michael (Roger Davies) sharing a moment in a traffic jam while waiting for petrol (we’re told there’s an energy shortage going on right as the film opens) where they talk sweetly and emotionally about her going to space for a mission. She doesn’t want to go, but he thinks he should since it’s for the good of humankind.

It’s a wonderful moment, portrayed brilliantly by Mbatha-Raw and Davies and directed beautifully by Julius Onah, who does a great job of trying to salvage the script with his direction, that sums ups the Cloverfield franchise’s ability to mix the epic with the personal.  These are films that are very much set against a massive canvas of science fiction themes and a monster invasion narrative, but they work when they’re filtered through the personal, and the opening to Paradox does a great job of continuing that tradition. We know this is going to be a big movie set in space for the most part, but we’re presented with something intimate and personal that grounds the film beautifully and which Mbatha-Raw and Davies brilliantly continue with throughout the film even though this is the only scene they share where they’re in the same physical space.

The film that follows ends up being a narrative mess, however. Make no mistake, there is a grand quality to its ambitions, and it falls into a sub-genre of science fiction film that, for this reviewer at least, is hard to resist; the claustrophobic spaceship-set science fiction/horror thriller, the likes of which Alien and Event Horizon fall into and which the recent Life starring Ryan Reynolds also attempted to replicate.

READ MORE: Overlord: Looking back at… 10 Cloverfield Lane

Even the cast is well-chosen, with the likes of David Oyelowo, Daniel Bruhl, Zhang Ziyi, Elizabeth Debicki and Chris O’Dowd being a good sign, but the dialogue they have to deliver is at times inane (Donal Logue’s cameo is basically the entire plot distilled into awkward exposition) and the plot moves at a fast pace but never feels as if its control of itself.

There is a dark joy to be had in seeing the motley crew of a spaceship gets despatched by either an alien creature or some sort of cosmic anomaly and initially The Cloverfield Paradox looks as if it’s going to be a brilliant continuation of that sub-genre; Onah’s direction is slick and wonderful, Bear McCready’s score is superb (it’s one of the film’s biggest saving graces) and Dan Mindel’s photography is richly cinematic, given that it looks to be shot on film and with anamorphic lenses.

Given that this is the biggest budgeted Cloverfield to date and it’s the definitely the first to really open up its scope in term of the storytelling, it’s a shame that the story can never really settle on what it wants to achieve outside of its links to the previous movies. Worst of all, the characters are all stereotypes the likes of which we’ve seen in a hundred movies like this before, a fact made even more wasteful by the casting choices being exemplary (there is always something wonderfully comforting in seeing David Oyelowo show up in a movie it has to be said).

We have the stoic captain who’s emotional away from the crew but strong in front of them (Oyelowo); we have the smart, funny one who delivers the comical one-liners at moments the film is the most tension soaked (O’Dowd); we have one who kind of goes crazy and jeopardizes everything in the last act (Debicki, strangely wasted until the final act); for the most part, it’s actually hard to remember the majority of the character’s names throughout the running time.

The ideas presented throughout on particle acceleration and parallel universes are intriguing and are approached with gusto and enthusiasm, but in attempting to try and open up this franchise, if that’s the appropriate word to use in relation to these movies, to a bigger canvas and budget, it ends up losing cohesion and logic.

When the film slows down to focus more on Hamilton and her emotional state when she discovers that the parallel universe her and the crew have found themselves is one where her kids are still alive, after having lost them in a tragic accident in her own world, the film feels more like a Cloverfield film than everything else going on around it.

The first two movies may have been playing in a world where monsters are invading, but they played so well because they filtered themselves through character which propelled the narrative and made it much easier to care. When The Cloverfield Paradox does that with Hamilton, and as result filters itself through Mbatha-Raw’s performance it’s brilliant, but when the story deals with severed arms, and the cast being killed off in not very imaginative ways it has to be said (exploding worms, anyone) it’s loses momentum and audience interest.

Filmed on a budget of $40 million, the most expensive Cloverfield to date, the film was produced in the later stages of 2016, yet took nearly a year and a half to be released, with Paramount clearly panicking about the film finding an audience despite the inclusion of the Cloverfield name and delaying it several times before deciding to make the budget back on the film by selling it to Netflix who released its first trailer during the Super Bowl of 2018 and then uploading the movie not long after.

Admittedly, as a release strategy goes, it was ingenious and gained the film a high level of positive publicity that didn’t last long when word got out that it wasn’t anything special, which is a total shame. With a diverse cast and a Nigerian-American director in Julius Onah, the film ended up being something of a critical flop in the eyes of many, but the fault lies more with its shoddy scripting than its direction which tries to make the film work and a cast who do the best they can with characters who, with one exception, aren’t very memorable.

In the end, there is something noble about is failings, but the film is a failure never the less. Despite its problems, there is a part of this reviewer that is a little disappointed that we didn’t get to see it on the big screen. It does look gorgeous and the visual style is wonderful, while it would have been wonderful to hear McCready’s beautiful score in Dolby Digital 5.1.

With its release straight to Netflix and a studio who panicked at its mid-ranged budget, not only was the film a victim of shoddy storytelling, but also a victim of where the film industry is right now. A disappointment all around for sure.

The Cloverfield Paradox and Overlord are now streaming on Netflix.

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