Review: THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX

Horror fans are known to be some of the most warm, loving, awesome audiences out there. We know the path we walk to discover the films we like are an arduous, lonesome one but typically I’ve always found horror hounds to be romantically optimistic. Case in point: I think Blood Rage is one of the finest films ever made. Yeah, fuckin’ BLOOD RAGE. And since the Arrow restoration in 2016, new fans have discovered it to the delight and disgust of all. Like salt on cookies, it shouldn’t work but it does. I’ve spent hours scouring the shelves of second hand stores hoping to find that diamond in the rough. In many ways, we are all amateur historians diving into the past with a smile, hoping to surface the same.

So I don’t really know why recently some horror fans have gained a streak of pessimism. Standoffish to the new and unknown, daring creatives to cater to their deeply held cinematic tastes. Every single new release is held to a microscope and if it doesn’t make the cut, fans will decry it. For months we heard ad nauseam about Bill Skarsgards casting as Pennywise in IT, and how much of a spit in the face it was for fans of Tim Curry’s iconic portrayal. And when the film came out, the poison that they filled their wells with were so large that they couldn’t even verbalize why they didn’t like it, they just knew that they didn’t. And hard, unshakable opinions like that aren’t conducive for enjoying art. Especially a horror film which, based on pedigree alone, is all a matter of taste, and with this most recent film in the Cloverfield franchise, I feel something similar is happening.

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Twenty-four hours ago no one in the world knew we would get this new chapter dropped on us. Surprise doesn’t even come close to expressing what that was like. A film that was rumored to come out at the beginning of this year, that was then pushed back to April for a theatrical release prior to new rumblings about Netflix being a potential distributor. As 10 Cloverfield Lane had premiered its first trailer during Super Bowl 50, everyone was on edge for our first look at, as we had known it then, The God Particle. But Abrams and Co. doing what they do best, they pulled the rug out from under us once again and rather than giving us time to build hype for the film (which was a major detractor for me when I watched the original Cloverfield), we just had it. And in the age where Netflix is just another utility, it felt like we had been gifted a free film. And in that regard, it may have been part of its unintentional downfall. Because the film felt free, and it’s premiered play out as a worldwide event in real time, when audiences watched what they got, and didn’t like it, they felt duped. Audiences hear the words Cloverfield and think of only the first film with its giant kaiju, so when presented with a grander science fiction scope that doesn’t placate to the creature-feature-only fans, the blame is immediately placed back on the distributors and filmmakers. “This isn’t Cloverfield!” they may scream. “You got my hopes up!” But really, this is the story that Cloverfield so desperately needed.

The film opens on an emotionally charged scene between Ava Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her husband as she struggles with her decision to go on a mission to space. We hear snippets that global resources will be depleted in five years unless this proposed plan is successful. This scene perfectly encapsulates something that truly is missing from genre films: an emotional core centered on two people of color, and their family. Look, I’m white, so in no way do I mean be condescending, but I’ve found in genre films are typically lacking this type of relationship with actors of color. The moment is a drop in the ocean, with the rest of the film to come, but it also emphasized something larger to me. Many may completely disregard this scene, but I found it hopeful that we are getting closer to a future where these real connections on screen are more common place.

Outside of being crux to the story, this moment also immediately ties us to these two characters. Men in sci-fi films typically are in alpha mode (or some other carbon copy stereotype from the last 60 years), so seeing Michael (Roger Davies) graciously understand his wife and what she needs to do, stepping aside and letting her have her place is just so extremely important to today. In the first five minutes Julius Onah and Oren Uziel give us lived in, three dimensional characters that feel fresh, and significant.

Paradox doesn’t waste much time toiling in what we expect from the “Astronauts In Peril” film, where we are given a lot of information to parse, process, and ultimately discard as the action gets underway. Rather than going by the numbers, Onah’s tempo rapidly dances in the first act, establishing the weight of the crew’s task: to start a particle accelerator that will give Earth an unlimited amount of energy to solve the world’s current socio-political economic crisis (is this all starting to sound familiar to you?). But of course with these daring missions to space, something inevitably goes wrong, and the crew find themselves separated from Earth while increasingly erratic events start happening on the spaceship. To say anymore would deprive you of the fun twists and turns the plot takes, and it takes plenty, but that still doesn’t save it from something I don’t think you can be saved from: the passage of time. Since Alien hit in 1979, we have seen different variations on the same space station theme: blue collar astronauts and scientists doing something risky, risky turns into dangerous, and next thing you know something is picking off the crew, people are flying out of airlocks, and the audience is involuntarily holding their breath. It’s been done, and better, before. Alien did it better.

But just because something did it better, doesn’t deprive it of effect. While certain scenes may seem all too familiar, they’ve never been done with such a representative perspective. When they first flashed the picture of the flight crew together, presumably on Earth, my first thought was “The world deserves to look more like this.” It may be an over-generalization but I don’t think it’s untoward to make the claim that the vast majority of horror films are made with white audiences in mind. We get the privilege to not think about the impact it means to have a POC actress as the lead of a big sci-fi horror film like this. To see someone that looks like you on screen, for once, in a role that typically goes to Caucasian actors, it’s hard for some to wrap their brains around how imperative that is. The importance isn’t clicking to them. I think back to a deluge of Twitter posts of young black men and women taking pictures in front of the Black Panther poster, celebrating that for once it was predominately people of color. “This is what it feels like for white people? ALL THE TIME?” said one Twitter caption. I’m sure many will decry “Why are you bringing up race?” as if social politics and genre films have never gone hand in hand. And I bring it up because it is necessary. It’s necessary to be aware of this achievement, to celebrate it, to remember it, and to push to see it continue. And even if you found this film to be mediocre, think: true equality comes when representation is seen in all movies from the so-so, to the prestige.

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The larger elephant in the room of course, is the discussion of the Cloverfield cinematic universe, and how these three very different movies are having a property wedged in to them. They find it muddied and confusing. And fuck, they are totally right. Going into this film calling Cloverfield a “universe” would have been a bit of a stretch. We had two films, almost a decade apart, and in that expanse of time Marvel rose up and changed the landscape of big budget films. Like comic book universes, audiences want to see films that tie in and reference each other. Breaking apart the idea of a trilogy or series of films, and transforming into an all encompassing cross media empire. And I have no problem with Cinematic Universes, they’re fucking cool. Growing up reading comics and obsessing over Star Wars, I am the prime target for this type of cinematic storytelling revolution. But what sticks in many critics side is the fact that 10 Cloverfield Lane and The Cloverfield Paradox both were two films that were unrelated, but through development and production became the next two chapters in the Cloverfield Universe. 10 Cloverfield, originally a spec script called The Cellar, later Valencia. In 2012, Paramount bought The Cellar, with another spec script called God Particle, and worked with JJ Abrams company Bad Robot to further develop. During development, fundamental similarities began to emerge between Cloverfield and Valencia, and with few rewrites 10 Cloverfield Lane was born. A “spiritual successor” to Cloverfield, as Abrams described it. With God Particle something similar happened. The screenwriter Oren Uziel had this to say to Collider:

“I don’t know exactly when it became a Cloverfield movie, but I suspect in this current market where it’s just harder and harder to market an original movie of any kind, a science-fiction movie in particular, but I think everyone just knew if it fits—and it does—into that Cloverfield world, it should, and it can only help.”

And that, to me, should the final word on the animosity towards these two spec scripts becoming Cloverfield films. It fits, and it helps. With a powerhouse performance by John Goodman and grounded by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield didn’t really need much help to be an excellent thriller. But the inclusion of seeing the alt-universe monsters at the end, the weight that hits our heroine as she defeats one monster only to face off against another and deciding to fight morphed the film from being a good but easily forgotten film to a remarkable sci-fi thriller that we clearly are still discussing. With The God Particle, while the script may have not been originally written as part of this universe, it’s transition to it is damn near seamless. It’s arguably the most important Cloverfield film to date because of the risks it takes in world building and setting up a Cinematic Universe literally about universes.

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The Cloverfield Universe, over the last three films, have been centered around “Day One”: when the Shepherd Particle Accelerator was activated, causing the Cloverfield Paradox. The Paradox created a rift between universes, resulting in an invasion (for lack of a better word) of Cloverfield Monsters (again, for lack of a better word). We’ve exhausted the possibilities of what happens “the day after” over the past few years, especially with The Walking Dead being a cultural cornerstone for storytelling. Is the Cloverfield Universe simply allowing us to revel in the moments before? The final moments of innocence before our lives are changed forever? In Cloverfield we see the night of the Paradox on Earth, the monster tears down New York City, while the military is aware. In 10 Cloverfield Lane, we see how rural life is affected by the Paradox and how the traumas of our lives before continue into the early days of the “new world”. Now with The Cloverfield Paradox, we now see what started the invasion. Three films linked around one singular moment. Once again, Cloverfield gives us something we didn’t know we needed, but we need it desperately: a new concept for the growing demand for cinematic universes.

This Universe learns as it goes, which honestly is refreshing when everything can seem so by the books in the studio system. As an artist myself, creatives need the space to learn, grow, make mistakes, and get back up again. In this case, their methods have created a new possibility for how we can frame a Cinematic Universe. All of this is to say that The Cloverfield Paradox is a better film because of the inclusion of the Cloverfield Universe. This isn’t Hellraiser: Deader where the Cenobites were haphazardly added to a boring Se7en clone. Nothing about The Cloverfield Paradox was made worse because it’s now part of a cinematic universe, a universe that doesn’t solely rely on giant monsters to be its branding. Something that Uziel understands:

“I think if you can get that off the ground, which they are close, it’s very smart and also great for makers of science-fiction because it relieves you of that burden of like, ‘How are we gonna get people to get off their asses and into the movie theater to see something they’re not sure?’ It’s not a guarantee; the cast is different, we don’t know exactly what we’re getting, but if that stamp of approval of being part of the Cloverfield universe is enough, that’s a huge win. So I’m all for it. When you turn on The Twilight Zone, that’s sort of the way I think about it. I don’t know what this story is going to be, but I know it’s going to be a Twilight Zone story… ”