One problem with modern media, I think we can all agree, is franchise-syndrome. Cable and broadcast series stay around longer than their plotlines will allow, and film series reboot rather than die with honor. One interesting way of countering that has been a subtle return of anthologies, most notably with TV series like “True Detective,” “American Horror Story” and “American Crime Story.” Cinematically speaking, there are the Cloverfield films, which are typically quirky thrillers that get the J. J. Abrams touch: plots that are guarded like jealous lovers and doled out slowly, both in the advertising and the films themselves. Which explains why “The Cloverfield Paradox” is both a bit labyrinthine in its narrative construction and its Neflix release was only officially announced in a Super Bowl commercial. For us here at Idols and Realities, that also means we get to review something new for a change.
After a few rounds of quick exposition–I counted three–we join a cast of international science dudes onboard the space station Cloverfield. Seems they’re trying to kick-start an eternal energy machine to stop people on earth from fighting over oil reserves. After a couple years of misfiring, the machine finally works, but in doing so it breaks and it rips a hole in spacetime. Cut off from the Earth, the crew must try to work together as tensions mount and their minds and bodies are fractured by the chaotic effects of a splintering reality.
If “Paradox” sounds a little familiar, that’s perhaps because it enters that long lineage of films that can be classified as “haunted house in space,” that is, space opera by way of psychological horror occasionally kissing cousin to cosmic horror, as in “Alien” and “Event Horizon,” but sometimes played a little straighter, as in “Pandorum.” If you’ve seen any of those films, just imagine them slightly less coherent, exciting and interesting, and you have “Paradox.”
“Paradox” doesn’t go far to explain its own paradoxes–it’s a bad sign when “Event Horizon” is using sounder science than your film. Presumably some stuff gets jumbled when dimensions collide, which explains the quirky placement of certain objects, but it doesn’t explain why some members of the crew are fine and others get the space crazies. No, there are too many unanswered questions for the film to click as a mind screw. It’s weird, sure, but it’s not weird enough. On the other hand, maybe the film wanted to do something more philosophical, perhaps something about ethics. But that kind of question, while it could be posed, it not. Maybe it was in an earlier version of the script–there are some religious hints thrown around at the beginning of the movie, but they’re dropped pretty quick.
Furthermore, the movie doesn’t get particularly psychological, if only because it would be hard to pull off when all your characters are about as thin as construction paper. Gugu Mbatha-Raw does her best with the central, and therefore most complex, character of the film, but she can only so much. I like Elizabeth Debicki as an icy space lady, but that might just be because her haircut reminds me of David Bowie. The best of the bunch is probably Chris O’Dowd, who gets all the funniest lines of dialogue, which is a good idea because he’s Chris O’Dowd. So the movie at least does that right.
Perhaps it lacks an experienced hand at the wheel. Director Julius Onah has years of producing credits, but only one thriller to his name. What the film doesn’t get right or wrong, it simply does OK. The look never rises above handsome, but it never really sinks to genuinely ugly, preferring to stay in a safe, middling middle. Graphics are fine. Special effects are fine. Soundtrack is unmemorable, so it was probably fine. But fine don’t quite cut it.
The Cloverfield “franchise” has always taken its B-movie subjects somewhat seriously, resulting in either the wicked sense of humor of the first film or the genuine thrills of “10 Cloverfield Lane.” “Paradox” still maintains its predecessors seriousness, but it can’t live up in the other ways. And that ending. Perhaps it’s trying too hard. There are plenty of standard Cloverfield tropes in the plot: not-everything-is-what-it-seems, a decent dose of disaster and conspiracy, and there’s even a trace of that sense of humor. But there are no real thrills, too many questions left answered and all the wrong ones raised to begin with.
The problem is obvious, of course. “Cloverfield” had actress Lizzy Caplan; “Lane” had Mary Elizabeth Winstead–the film was lacking a distant, smoky brunette. I’m sure that would have fixed everything.