This first part is spoiler-free. There will be a disclaimer when we get into spoiler territory.
The Cloverfield franchise has become the cinematic equivalent of Black Mirror over the years. Instead of jumping on the bandwagon of incestuously (and lazily) tied together movies that are all the rage, Cloverfield has played it a little loose and fast with just how connected their movies are. The Cloverfield Paradox (the third installment in the franchise) stands alone as a classic “moral quandary sci-fi thriller” but also finds a clever way to find an over-arching connection that brings the movies under an umbrella, but also leaves them disconnected enough to not infringe on the creativity of the creators behind the individual films.
Synopsis: “Orbiting a planet on the brink of war, scientists test a device to solve an energy crisis, and end up face-to-face with a dark alternate reality.”
The crux of the story (beyond the sci-fi stuff) lies with Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s (most recently in the San Junipero episode of Black Mirror) Hamilton – a communications officer with a recent tragedy still haunting her as she agrees to be a part of the space station team testing a particle accelerator that could possibly give unlimited energy to a planet quickly using up the last of its energy reserves. As this is a Cloverfield movie, things go awry and the crew ends up dealing with the sheer terror that comes when dealing with parallel dimensions/alternate realities overlapping to results of gruesome and creative uses of body horror. Cloverfield Paradox makes excellent use of the kind of paranoia associated with claustrophobic sci-fi, without portraying the characters as completely irrational or manic for the sake of terror. Even at the biggest turning point in the film, the character’s motivations creating more discord are 100% justifiable when seen from their point of view.
Aside from the very impressive release strategy of the film itself (which eschews the traditional route of multiple trailers and critical screenings), The Cloverfield Paradox boasts a very impressive cast (though not in terms of impressively recognizable names). Gugu Mbatha-Raw brings a level of emotional resonance that grounds the film. David Oyelowo (Selma, Queen of Katwe) stoically portrays the leader of the team who only shows indecision and fear in his private moments, but seems completely composed around his crew. Chris O’Dowd adds some levity to the film as Mundy – the ship’s mechanic who approaches every unbelievable experience he encounters with the kind of bewildered amusement and resigned acceptance that keeps things light. It was very cool to see Elizabeth Debicki (The Man From UNCLE) getting a meaty role (and not covered in full body makeup) as Jensen – the mysterious crew member who appears from out of nowhere. From top to bottom the cast is filled with top notch actors and the biggest complaint about it all is they really could have used more screen time and dialogue overall (a rare case when making a film longer would have created a strong emotional attachment to the ancillary characters), however by focusing more on Hamilton and Jensen as counterparts existing in the same reality, it made the story flow without getting bogged down in needing to give everyone their own backstory.
You can kind of see why Netflix was the smart move for this one. It’s a very, very solid and entertaining sci-fi film, but it really doesn’t have the star power/FX budget to really sustain itself as a theatrical release. It lives in that mid-budget realm that often gets missed/buried at the theaters because of the sheer marketing power behind larger films. In many ways it is superior to some of its bigger-budget sci-fi brethren but without the cache of a critics-approved director or mega-name as the star, it will likely get many, many more eyes on the film as a Netflix Original. Despite all that, it was definitely a very intriguing addition to the Cloverfield films that works perfectly as a standalone film and also adds an extra layer to the overall mystery/mystique of the films as a series.
Okay, now we’re getting into the dreaded spoiler territory so headup. SPOILERS. You with me so far? Spoilers in the next paragraph. So if you’re skimming and not really reading, it’s your own fault.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Hamilton was indeed the heart of the film. A lot of her personal dilemma revolved around the fact that she accidentally caused the death of her own children. After the crew successfully test fire their particle accelerator they find themselves in an alternate universe. In this universe Hamilton’s children are still alive, so now she’s left to process the idea that she could possibly see and/or save her children from her alt-self’s potentially fatal misstep. She’s willing to give up returning to her own reality in favor of saving an alt-reality version of her children. This is one of the classic moral quandaries associated with parallel dimensions.
Along with that is Jensen – Debecki just looking absolutely Tilda-Swinton-levels-awesome – who gets gruesomely trapped inside the walls of the space station. When Hamilton’s crew test fired the accelerator, it appeared in the alt-timeline and knocked that’s timeline’s spacestation out of orbit. As it materialized in the alt-timeline, it trapped Jensen in the wall, fusing her body with the wiring. When the crew uncovered the panel to reveal her, it was an extremely anxiety-inducing moment that revealed one of the more low-key gory moments in recent memory. Jensen in the wall is a great example of how a director can instill fear/horror/dread without actually being overtly graphic.
There’s also a really fun bit with Chris O’Dowd’s character losing his arm. Because the two realities smashed into each other, it cause the universe to find a way to reconcile the paradox – in this case the alt-timeline Mundy probably lost his arm in the accident which caused original Mundy’s arm to be taken away. As a result we see a disembodied arm of alt-timeline Mundy running around like Ash’s hand in Evil Dead 2 – but less evil and more helpful. There are sudden and jarring tonal shifts in the film – between the mysterious arrival of Jensen and the comedic arm-loss of Mundy – that add to the disorienting atmosphere the director is trying to create. It’d be too easy to create a singular tone and just ride it out til the end like a lot of modern sci-fi films do now. With The Cloverfield Paradox, the director keeps shifting the tone and vibe of the scenes to better replicate the discombobulation the crew themselves are feeling. While this may be frustrating for some who prefer a more straight-forward approach, it is actually reminiscent of the shows like the Twilight Zone or Black Mirror in how they were continually able to subvert the audience’s expectations while still maintaining a logical storyline progression. People may feel confused or frustrated or angry at how the film keeps shifting gears, but in terms of creating a vicarious audience experience to a group of scientists suddenly thrust into an unbelievable and utterly confusing situation – it works pretty well.
Most of all though, the dynamic between Hamilton and Jensen deserve the most attention. As Jensen replaced Hamilton in the alt-timeline’s mission, they are truly the only surviving counterparts for most of the film. Towards the end of the film they find themselves add opposite ends of the same conundrum. Jensen wants to kill off the crew and keep the particle accelerator so that her Planet Earth will survive. Hamilton needs to return it to her timeline for the same reason, but is caught because if the alt-timeline Earth doesn’t get this technology, then her children will die…again, largely due to her actions. It is, as advertised, a paradox.
Tying it all together? – It seems that the Cloverfield Paradox (a paradox created by the firing of the accelerator) is the impetus for the happenings of the previous two films. When the alternate dimensions crossed over, it brought all kinds of creatures from unknown timelines onto our Earth. Presumably the first Cloverfield movie is the result of that – the particle accelerator tore a hole into the fabric of space/time that brought these creatures into humanity’s realm. In 10 Cloverfield Lane, we explore an equally claustrophobic experience underground that ends with the revelation that horrific alien creatures are taking over Earth. The Cloverfield Paradox could be the root cause of these happenings and while it does tie some things together, it actually allows for more interesting possibilities down the line. Sure, our Earth is being ravaged by gigantic monsters, but what about parallel/alternate Earths? What is the fallout of the Cloverfield Paradox for them? The possibilities really open up when you look at it like that. Hopefully Netflix gets the opportunity for some short films/mini-series exploring this kind of science fiction chicanery as it always makes for a fun time that’s not beholden to studio execs more interested in marketability than telling a good story.
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