Cloverfield Paradox and The New Film Medium

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We’re in an interesting place in time, still riding the first waves created when art and technology collide in the vast ocean of the internet. Arguably the art form benefiting most from this collision is film; anyone can now make a visual story with their phone and present it to the world on Youtube. But, conversely the film industry is experiencing turmoil.  Streaming sites are eroding the need for movie theaters while devouring content at a seemingly unsustainable rate. And at the current rate of technological innovation, in a little more than a decade we may be watching movies completely different from how we’ve been accustomed too. For instance, within the next two or three years it’s likely every new movie will be released on the internet, allowing movie goers to forego the hassles of being in public and watch the newest releases from the comfort of our own homes. Whether this is a good or bad inevitability is up for debate, but nonetheless, it’s the dawning of a new medium and the film industry has to figure out how to adapt. This means we get the pleasure of observing a lot of growing pains along the way in the form of films like Cloverfield Paradox.

For a moment after it was announced that Paradox would be released suddenly on Netflix following the Super Bowl, it felt like a bolt of lightning to jolt progress forward. A major film is being release on Netflix, surely this is a watershed moment, that was until people started watching the movie.

Cloverfield Paradox is the type of movie that takes a good premise and does very little with it…or does too much? It’s hard to say exactly. It strives to be a tense sci-fi thriller with a sprinkling of horror, but everything clever about this movie begins and ends with its premise. About that premise, it mostly takes place in a massive particle accelerator/space station orbiting the Earth. The crew aboard the ship consists of highly skilled scientists and astronauts working to solve civilization’s ever tightening energy crisis using the particle accelerator to somehow create sustainable energy. But, something goes horribly wrong when they try to get the accelerator up and running, which causes Earth to disappear, the whole thing. After it takes them an obscene amount of time to notice the big blue ball they were orbiting is gone the cinematic equivalent of wet spaghetti noodles start flying off the screen in the hopes some might stick.

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The biggest reason why so much of the film seems like a scattering of half baked ideas is that there are no rules. The dangers of orbiting a giant particle accelerator around the Earth are never established, no build-up or foreshadowing the random things that start happening once it goes haywire. Sure, we have Donal Logue pop up to put a nice neat bow on the Cloverfield connection, but there’s nothing to explain or inform the things that happen, which is why it just feels like a junk drawer full of random ideas and movie tropes.

All this while the main character Hamilton played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw deals with her own struggles and trauma which doesn’t so much inform her character as it’s treated as an afterthought and plot device. The same for Elizabeth Debicki’s character of Jensen, she’s the most interesting character in the film but she’s stashed away for later use in the final act.

There are however, bits of inspiration in this soupy mess of ideas, a bit with a severed arm is just out-of-left field enough to be fun, how Debicki’s character enters into the story is a visceral dash of horror, but again, inspired ideas without much cohesion.

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The film, despite its shallowness, does manage to, at times, build some tension. It’s not difficult to feel the desperation of space, and the daunting task the crew must undertake to get back home, but even that is undercut by obviously tacked on scenes of Hamilton’s husband (Roger Davies) still on Earth experiencing crazy Cloverfield things in some of the flattest, most vague, scenes seen in a movie so far this year. It becomes so jarring that each cut to Roger Davies on Earth should be accompanied by the sound of a deflating balloon. And all of it leads to an embarrassing final scene to once again, hammer in the connection to two previous movies with a fairly ambiguous connection themselves.

Had Paradox’s connection to the previous two films merely been tenuous as well (say we don’t keep cutting to Earth to remind us of the Cloverfield connection?) had it focused simply on fully realizing its characters and the events on the space station perhaps it could have been the tightly wound space thriller it fails in being. Its failures as a movie prevent it from being the watershed we all suspected it of being in that brief moment on Super Bowl Sunday (go Eagles) but nonetheless it still acted as an interesting experiment in the new testing ground for the film industry.

-James Merolla

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