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‘The Cloverfield Paradox’ Is an Embarrassingly Bad Movie … but Still a Win for Netflix

The release hype of a surprise drop shouldn’t obscure the fact the film itself is incompetently written and blandly directed

Netflix/Ringer illustration

OK, Netflix: You win. Uncle! Will you please let go of my arm? You’ve already proved you can beat the movie industry at its own game by convincing people that there’s no incentive to ever leave the couch. Now, with the surprise drop of The Cloverfield Paradox on the night of the Super Bowl, you’ve shown you can nail the event release. The film itself, which was shot in 2016 and is undoubtedly being dumped on Netflix because it’s too deficient for a theatrical release, is a complete embarrassment. It’s one of the most incompetently written and blandly directed sci-fi films in recent memory. But even this is a sign of your mastery, Netflix, because as of Monday morning, people are still talking about it. This is a movie that comes with a built-in neuralyzer: The second it’s over, your brain, desperate to recover from the trauma of trying to make sense of this disaster, immediately tries to kill all memory of having seen it. Yet here we all are, trapped in a cycle of patting Netflix on the back as it actively tries to make us go brain-dead. Extraordinary work, Netflix. Again: You win.

You can’t blame a movie studio for trying to cut its losses, but something about all of this stinks, like congratulating the local power plant for engineering new ways to dump toxic waste in your backyard. The local fauna are sprouting three heads and new grass won’t grow for 10 generations, but at least Netflix got to prove it can con with the best of them, right? The Cloverfield Paradox cost Paramount, its original backer, $40 million to make, and while watching it doesn’t remotely clarify where all that money went, it does explain why a company would cook up a smoke-and-mirrors show to prevent us from measuring the movie’s worth in box-office receipts. And it more than explains why Netflix is an ideal partner in crime for doing so.

The story goes that Jim Gianopulos, the new chairman of Paramount as of last year, sat down to review all of the films he had inherited when he took the job, making up his mind about which were worthy of a theatrical release and which weren’t. The Cloverfield Paradox, as you’ve by now guessed, didn’t make the cut for a typical rollout. “He sat down and looked at what is theatrical, what is not in this day and age,” a source told The Hollywood Reporter. Paradox, which was called both God Particle and Cloverfield Station at various stages in its development, was already out of step with its predecessors, Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane, which cost $25 million and $15 million to make, respectively, and each earned well beyond what they cost.

This newest Cloverfield cost almost twice as much as the OG and, it is now clear, stood a fraction of a chance at making any of that back, save some extraordinary finagling on the studio’s end. As Paramount and Netflix both undoubtedly noticed, the Cloverfield franchise has a history of uncanny release hype. The first film’s storied viral marketing campaign, drumming up excitement for an original monster movie that no one had heard of, is by now legend, and you can sense that the sequels have tried to keep tapping into that excitement over the unknown. These movies have an audience that is more than willing to eat up anything that makes the series feel like it still operates under a cultish veil of mystery, even as the franchise was always too popular to qualify as a genuine cult hit. Not only that, but in the midst of an industry facing immense change for the foreseeable future, any shift in traditional release strategy gets recorded in the annals as an innovation worthy of a Homeric ode: “Sing to me, O Muses, of that time Netflix dumped shitty content in our laps. No, not that time—the other time.”

It’s not as if Paramount or Netflix invented dumping a movie, but everyone involved would rightly prefer to market Paradox—or rather to let its well-meaning, supportive proselytizers market it—as some kind of industry sea change, and a win for diversity in Hollywood to boot. It’s true that the movie, which was directed by Julius Onah, is full of familiar, multi-ethnic faces. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Elizabeth Debicki, Daniel Brühl, Ziyi Zhang, Chris O’Dowd, and others play a space crew whose mission is to help solve the energy crisis back on Earth, which has resulted in drawn-out wars over oil (in addition to the ones we were all already saddled with, I’m guessing) through a particle accelerator experiment. TL;DR: Shit goes wrong, and the crew accidentally lands itself in a second dimension. As you watch, you’ll think of movies like Event Horizon and Sunshine—and then you’ll immediately feel a need to apologize to those movies.

Paradox is a dramatically indecisive, tonally convoluted, poorly written mess. But I like the concept. Being trapped in a second dimension has fascinating implications for who you are as your second self, and it’s also a good excuse for gnarly body horror, like a human body that explodes with dimensionally displaced test lab worms, or a wall that gnaws off a guy’s arm with surgical precision, just because. That’s not even the fun part: Soon afterward, the detached arm starts scribbling instructions to cut open someone else’s body. All the neato gross-out stuff is tempered by a nod toward the epic sentimentality that, post–Christopher Nolan, seems to infect too many sci-fi endeavors these days. I would watch and probably love the Tobe Hooper version of this movie: Give me the skillful, fantastical mix of wonder and horror epitomized by the likes of Lifeforce or Poltergeist. Spare me the subplot about wanting to cross dimensions to save your dead kids in an alternate timeline—Paradox simply isn’t equipped to handle the ethical, spiritual, or even scientific weight of that, though not for lack of trying. This is a movie in which a guy’s arm gets eaten off by a wall in a spaceship that’s trapped in a second dimension because of a failed particle accelerator trial meant to save Earth from an energy crisis likely sparked by a monster invasion … and you’re still trying to sell us on an emotional arc?

The best possible version of this film wouldn’t star anyone People magazine cares about. This should be a mucky, yucky, lower-tier B movie, genuine trash rather than trash with a gussied-up franchise finish. Gugu Mbatha-Raw shouldn’t have even heard of Paradox, let alone be cast to cry over a dead child in it. The Cloverfield series will get credit for expanding in the curious, circular ways that it has, fleshing out a large world film by film in sequels that don’t necessarily follow a strict sequence but, rather, seem to proceed organically, as siblings rather than as successors. The previous two releases each felt like they could stand on their own, making a dullard like Paradox stand out as a dead end, a wandering arm on a spaceship in search of a body, or a purpose.

Netflix may be winning the release-hype game, but the question it still seems ill-equipped to answer is: What would be the harm in making a better movie? Same release hullabaloo, same breaking of the internet, same industry plaudits—but in service of a film someone, somewhere, might be proud of? I don’t mind that Paradox sucks. I mind that its bloated release makes the movie seem like it sucks with purpose. This is peak Mediocrity As Event. Netflix has proved that it knows how to direct the conversation. When is it going to hire people to direct better movies?