(Note: because this movie is bad, spoilers are good for you if they convince you not to watch it)
I don’t watch football, let alone play it, but I felt like I had a concussion after watching the new Netflix film The Cloverfield Paradox. Despite my aversion to the sport, I’m in the unlucky group of people who saw the movie after its surprise announcement at the Superbowl. While it starts out as a promising follow-up to Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane, by the end it was like all of the disappointment of the last 3 seasons of Lost had been distilled into one headache-inducing pile-on.
The film follows an international crew of astronauts as they work on an energy-producing particle accelerator in Earth’s orbit. The mission seems like humanity’s last hope, since near-future Earth is low on resources. However, we learn that the particle accelerator could “risk ripping open the membrane of spacetime, smashing together multiple dimensions, shattering reality.” When the crew gets the accelerator to work, they’re transported to a parallel universe where recent history is slightly different, and strange happenings aboard the ship begin to torment them.
Critics have been trashing The Cloverfield Paradox, but the first half isn’t bad. Assuming this movie doesn’t throw his career out of the airlock, director Julius Onah is someone to watch out for. He gives each of the main crew room to be memorable in the first act, and the early stages of the “haunted spaceship” second act are great. The premise of “dimensional chaos” never makes any sense, but it gives the filmmakers free reign to design interesting scares. From worms that control a man’s eyeballs from inside his skull, to a severed arm that develops a will of its own, none of them are scary, but they’re all distinctive and fun.
We’ve come a long way from the polar bear in the Lost pilot, and these days there’s no reason to watch a J.J. Abrams movie and expect answers to questions like “How did the worms get there?” and “Why did the wall suck that guy’s arm off?” There’s no overriding logic to anything other than “the dimensions!!!” But if you’re going to make a movie about wacky quantum singularities trying to kill astronauts, you have to make that movie! Halfway into The Cloverfield Paradox, I thought I had settled into a well-paced series of absurd and surreal deaths, like Final Destination in space with a pinch of Richard Kelly. Instead, the movie drops the “weird space stuff” angle completely and loses its sense of fun with it.
You see, when the ship switches universes, one of the crew members (Elizabeth Debicki) is from the new universe. Initially she seems to be helping the crew get the ship back to their universe, but it turns out she wants to use the particle accelerator to save her (almost identical) planet. So…in the last 30 minutes…she gets a gun and starts killing the remaining crew members. That’s it. After an hour of teasing supernatural madness, our villain is a person in a spacesuit with a gun.
There could have been plenty of ways for this twist to tie into the movie’s game of tension and escalation (you know, the things that horror movies are supposed to have). Debicki could have some knowledge of the ship’s interdimensional murder traps. She could even have been controlling them like some kind of creepy alien sorceress. But instead of scares, this situation is played for maximum emotional and philosophical weight. If you had the choice…to save your world…or save a world exactly like yours only a couple of your personal details are different…what would you do? Who cares!?
It’s like the filmmakers had no idea why anyone was watching in the first place. My gut tells me rewrites and reshoots are to blame. This movie started as an original property — The God Particle — but whatever ending the original had (I’m guessing something more outlandish) must have been scrapped when J.J. Abrams brought the movie into the Cloververse. Extensive reshoots have been known to save movies like World War Z and Rogue One; here, it looks like they could have ruined everything.
The Cloverfield Paradox is nominally a space horror film in the vein of Alien, Event Horizon, and Sunshine, but for me it’s more of a metatextual mystery. Why would J.J. Abrams put his name on this? How did such a good cast sign on to something so bad? Where in the filmmaking process did everything go so wrong? Since this is a J.J. Abrams production, we know we’ll never get answers to the movie’s narrative enigmas, but I hope one day these other questions get resolved.
Adam Keller is an Oakland native with a sad compulsion to put his opinions online. He hopes that you like them, but what’s really important is that you like yourself. Twitter