You used to know where you were with Hollywood science-fiction films – and where you were was several months away from seeing them. There would be cast photos and set reports, posters and trailers, until, finally, after what felt like years of anticipation, you could witness a fantastic widescreen epic at a cinema near you. But not any more. On Sunday, the first trailer for “The Cloverfield Paradox” was aired during the Superbowl, but this wasn’t the beginning of a long publicity campaign, it was the end of it. The film itself was available to watch on Netflix straight after the game.
Some people hailed this as a brilliant promotional coup which brought mystery and excitement back to the movies: for once, you could see a film with next to no knowledge of what was about to unfold. Ava DuVernay, the director of “Selma” and this summer’s “A Wrinkle in Time”, tweeted that the surprise release was a “gamechanger” and “history in the making”. In another tweet she enthused, “I always say the traditional walls are collapsing. New pathways are necessary in this old system. Change is good.” (She may have been biased: one of the film’s stars, David Oyelowo, played Martin Luther King in “Selma”.) Other Twitter users were more sceptical. “The Cloverfield Paradox” was originally supposed to have a cinema release, but then Paramount sold it to Netflix, and Netflix stuck it online. To many people, this seemed to be the 21st-century equivalent of dumping it in a video shop’s bargain bin.
I’d argue that both reactions are valid. Yes, Netflix’s marketing gimmick was an attention-grabbing and unprecedented use of today’s technology. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and “The Cloverfield Paradox” tastes like leftovers which have been in the fridge for two days too many.
Most of the film is set aboard a space station which looks from the outside like a floating bar stool and from the inside like a compromise between the designers of the snazzy USS Enterprise in “Star Trek” and the industrial USCSS Nostromo in “Alien”. The sketchily drawn international crew – played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Daniel Bruhl, Zhang Ziyi, Chris O’Dowd, David Oyelowo and Aksel Hennie – has been sent into orbit to test a gigantic particle accelerator. Why? Well, one of them is helpful enough to explain: “Because [Earth’s] energy is running out, people are starving, and this mission could unlock a potential source of energy which could save us all.”
The only slight worry is that the particle accelerator could also rip a hole in the fabric of reality. Or, as someone else is helpful enough to explain: “The experiment could unleash monsters, demons...in the past, in the future, in other dimensions!” This clumsily articulated premise raises a number of questions. For one thing, how could anyone possibly know that a particle accelerator would unleash otherworldly monsters? And for another, didn’t anyone consider solving the global energy crisis by harnessing solar power, just to be on the safe side?
Alas, the crewmembers flick the accelerator’s “on” switch, and are immediately zapped into an alternate universe with a few tiny but significant differences from our own: a room suddenly becomes magnetised; some table-football spindles spin of their own accord; someone’s arm separates, bloodlessly, from the rest of his body, and then scuttles off like Ash’s hand in “Evil Dead II”. These occurrences are all passably spooky, but they’re also utterly random. “Logic doesn’t apply to any of this,” declares a crewmember, which may be a crafty way for the screenwriters to shrug off their arbitrary plotting, but which also sums up why their hotchpotch of a film is so uninspiring. Once the space station is in an alternate universe, we never know why anything is happening or what the crew is supposed to do about it, and so it becomes impossible to care.
Over all, “The Cloverfield Paradox” is what you’d get if you glued bits of a “Star Trek” episode to bits of “Alien” – hence, I suppose, the space station design. But it is made much worse by some incongruous, micro-budget sequences set back on Earth. It’s obvious why they’re there. When the screenplay was written, it was entitled “God Particle”, and it had nothing to do with “Cloverfield”, a blockbuster found-footage monster movie, produced by JJ Abrams, which came out a decade ago. But then someone realised that “God Particle” would seem more prestigious if it was connected to Abrams’ franchise. Thus, the title was changed and some cheap new scenes linked the particle accelerator to the Godzilla-like creature which stomped all over New York in “Cloverfield” in 2008.
Unfortunately, this last-minute damage-limitation exercise makes the film seem less prestigious, not more. That’s the paradox of “The Cloverfield Paradox”. Watching it, you’re aware that a once-promising project had to be rescued twice, first by being attached to the “Cloverfield” banner and then by being shunted to Netflix. The question now is whether Netflix’s subsequent releases will be tarnished by association – and whether Netflix’s brand will be tarnished, too.
Later this month, the streaming service will be premiering “Mute”, a future-noir thriller directed by Duncan Jones (“Moon”, “Source Code”). On the same day, it is due to show “Annihilation”, an eco-horror movie from Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”) which was, like “The Cloverfield Paradox”, offloaded to Netflix by Paramount. We’ll soon see whether “Mute” and “Annihilation” are masterpieces which deserved more exposure, or whether they are as shoddy as “The Cloverfield Paradox”. But I hope, for Netflix’s sake, that they’re the former. If the company isn’t careful, subscribers will stop seeing it as a history-maker and a game-changer, and start seeing it as a scrapheap for science-fiction films which failed to get off the launch pad.