A Few Words About "The Cloverfield Paradox"

The Cloverfield Paradox
"The Cloverfield Paradox" Produced by J.J. Abrams


In a surprise coup on Sunday night, Netflix announced that it was releasing a film directly after the Superbowl. But it wasn't just any film. For years fans dedicated to the expansion of the Cloverfield Universe have been waiting for a worthy sucessor to the 2008 sleeper hit by the same name. In 2016, they sort of got their wish with the release of "Cloverfield Lane". Mostly it seemed to be a giant head fake designed to get butts in theater seats. I know I spent the entire film wondering when that giant Lovecraftian beauty was going to come smashing through the walls of that fallout shelter and start murdering people. Despite the fact that none of that materialized, I still found the film mostly enjoyable, as did those on Rotten Tomatoes (%90) and IMDB (7.2/10). While I am not a fan of crowdsourcing opinion, I have to say, I am with the masses on this one. For the past 3 days I have been watching the press savage the latest iteration of the Cloverfield franchise. I'm going to tell you where they, and the studios are getting it wrong.

Movie critics are not fanboys. They are not SciFi enthusiasts. They have, at best, a lazy understanding of science. And while it is a mistake to conflate Science and Science Fiction, occasionally the studios get something thematically and scientifically correct (if only theoretically). Movie critics are just movie critics. And lately it seems that they are the herd, not the consumer. They seem to be aggregating opinion in some sort of hive mind because they lack the proper understanding of scifi to give the film context. Many of the same people who gave "The Cloverfield Paradox" a bad review, also praised "The Last Jedi". This leads one to believe that these reviewers are unqualified to rate anything. In the absence of any real competence they are simply writing that which will bring the most readers, or keep them in studio shwag.

Movie reviewers seem to be getting a lot of attention from bashing streaming services. It's like a group of mercurial journalists lamenting the deprication of the typewriter or the printing press. You can sense the tangible, if not misplaced, resentment some of these reviewers have toward Netflix for not being a traditional studio. Rather than reporting on the real nature of Hollywood's ailments, Netflix seems to have become a convenient target for cheap shots and clickbait. These are the same reviewers who brand "Star Wars" fanboys as overly sentimental man children bent on living in the past. The fact is that Hollywood is the one with the problem. An unwillingness, a few years ago, to construct a profit model for streaming services, as well as technological ineptitude when it came to the advent of the technology, created a massive hole through which Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon were happy to step. Additionally, the studios continued to double down on reboots and franchises using these very same mouthpieces to prop up sales.

The other thing I find telling about the reviews about "The Cloverfield Paradox" is the fact that they tend to focus on the economics and marketing of the film without any substantive criticisms of the film itself. Who cares if Netflix bought the film for 50 million? The critics were too busy crafting some strange conspiracy theory around the back alley deal that landed the film at Netflix and casting its executives as corporate prestidigitators and carnival barkers rather than offering actual criticism of the film. Makes one wonder if the reason why is that they are simply unqualified to formulate any real opinion.

I can't, in good faith, complain about something and then do it myself. So let me tell you what I think about this film. The most obvious problem with this film is J.J. Abrams. Yes I am annoyed at him for creating the alternate reality in "Star Trek" (2007). Yes, I am annoyed at him for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens". But I am also pleased with "Westworld". If you look at "Lost", Abrams simply overplayed his hand by season six. The idea of perpetually wrapping something in mystery, isn't a mystery. It's annoying. The same way he makes a big deal out of covering is soundstages and actors up so no one can see what he is up to, is just a ham handed attempt at generating buzz. I didn't watch all 6 seasons of "Lost" so I don't know  the giant overall mystery that was revealed. Mostly because by Season 2, I didn't care. And that is what Abrams is doing with the Cloverfield franchise. In "Cloverfield Lane" we only got a hint of some extradimensional horror. And honestly, those aliens appeared to be markedly different from the ones in the first film. This has predictably created some confusion amongst Cloverfield fans. Now, with "The Cloverfield Paradox", which is essentially a prequel, we have a plausible explanation as to where these creatures may have come from.

The problem I am getting at, is that suspense can be a powerful tool. In fiction and films, it is the ultimate tool. But only when used judiciously. There has to be something in between the suspense to prop and build it up. And the exposition of the whatever the suspense is building up to, can't just be more suspense or mystery. Just like you can't use science as a backdrop in Science Fiction, you can't use mystery as a backdrop for everything else. Three movies in on the Cloverfied franchise and we are further away from any interaction with these creatures than we ever were. At some point, Abrams is going to have to put us in the same room with them, or we are simply going to stop watching.

So what does "The Cloverfield Paradox" get right?

I'm going to start by saying the writing. Despite a couple of truly awkward scenes having to do with a severed arm, the script was fairly well written. And despite its awkwardness, the scenes involving the severed arm and the actor from which the arm came, provided a fair amount of levity. The story had good structure and pace, and I felt the exposition was great without being rushed.

The science was on point without being too hard or preachy. It was appropriate for achieving the film's thematic objectives. The film's use of "m theory" was competent without being heavy handed. This is the element I think most reviewers were loathe to discuss. Though I am not a scientist, I can say I did have a small problem with it scientifically. Despite m theory being, well, a theory. And despite it not being a terribly well understood theory, I had a difficult time accepting the resolution to a very sophisticated problem. The crew is using something called "The Shephard", an array designed to create limitless energy for humanity. At some point a scientist talks about the method by which they are using the array to generate energy, and warns that this method may cause a tear in the fabric of space time. Sure enough, activation of The Shephard causes exactly that to happen. What apparently happens once the array is activated, is the entire facility is teleported into another dimension. The problem is eventually solved by reactivating the array. Scientifically, I found it hard to believe that a lateral move through dimensions could be reversed simply by turning on the device a second time. Without any kind of, even fictional, inversion of the technology or even a baseline reading from which to work, this was a little too convenient.

I really enjoyed the casting. It is always a pleasure to see Gugu Mbatha Raw in films. She is one of the most underrated actresses working today. I loved seeing David Oyelowo too, though this role felt a bit small for him given his previous work. Zhang Yiyi's casting was also a good move, though the idea that she spoke no English was a bit forced and hard to get around. It felt like more low level pandering to Chinese audiences. Finally, Daniel Bruhl was also a great cast. We want to see him in more things. All of the actors did an excellent job, and they had a decent script to work with.

Lastly, the production value was on point. There was a great deal of visual effects, but they weren't squaundered. The film's look and feel was cohesive and convincing.

In conclusion I think reviewers gave "The Cloverfield Paradox" a bad rap and very little of it was justified. When you look at what has been setting the bar lately for Science Fiction films, it seems really unfair to paint Netflix as the purveyor of bad product. Truth be told, down market formats are far more gratifying than big studio productions. For the cost of 10 dollars a month you can consume as much of it as you want. So it ultimately has less to do with the overall quality and more to do with the value. I spent 20 dollars buying a ticket for "The Last Jedi" and found it wasn't worth it. I have watched 4 movies on Netflix in the last two weeks, 3 of which were low budget. Granted, none of them were great, but they were good. I count this film among the good ones. If Abrams continues to invest in this franchises but brings us closer to some sort of logical conclusion, in larger steps, there may be some really good times ahead.  

About the author
J. Austin Yoshino
Author: J. Austin Yoshino
That's what I do; I read and I know things.
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