Skip to main content

My arm helped us find the Earth!

The Cloverfield Paradox
(2018)

(SPOILERS) As soon as the rumour broke that Paramount might be selling God Particle, or Cloverfield Station, to Netflix, entirely bypassing a cinema release, speculation ran rampant that they had a turkey on their hands and wished to palm it off. After all, this came off the back of reshoots and shifts in release dates. So when confirmation came, in something of a publicity coup, that it would touch down on the same day as its trailer, there was an understandable buzz of anticipation; this was exactly the kind of rug-pull surprise the series had previously done so well. Alas, the conversation quickly returned to turkey talk. The Cloverfield Paradox isn’t a patch on the previous two entries – particularly 2016’s entry – and its insertion of the Cloverfield branding is particularly inelegant, but it’s an actually an agreeable enough ride for the first hour, before revealing it has nowhere interesting to go with its not really all that distinctive alt-universe premise.


Indeed, one’s continually aware of how derivative The Cloverfield Paradox is, in much the same way Leviathan was derivative of a decade’s worth of Alien rip-offs. This has some of that in its DNA, and with a space station setting manages to suggest the disaster movie events of Gravity as well as last year’s (superior) Life, complete with a “shock” monster ending. Although, Life had a quality shock monster ending, and benefited, in relative terms, from limited remit and trajectory.


In contrast, the conceptual sky’s the limit in The Cloverfield Paradox, weirdness-wise, such that you can only be left disappointed when it eschews its potential and settles for a rather pedestrian race against time and previously unrevealed villainy in the third act. In that respect, it most resembles Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, another picture with a “last, best hope” space mission. And, while I wouldn’t wish turning into Event Horizon on any movie, the glimmers of more uncertain tangents and developments early in the proceedings suggest a far more engrossing physics- and reality-warping tale than the one we get.


If the shoehorned-in elements aren’t terribly convincing, the outlined setup takes also some chewing on. We’re asked to believe that by 2028 – or almost two years after, depending on whether that date’s the beginning of the movie or when shit on the station starts going down – the world will be facing a five-year countdown to the complete exhaustion of its energy resources (I guess there’s no wind or sunlight left); perhaps Oren Uziel and Doug Jung were inspired by Bowie’s Five Years to almost as ineffectual results as Neil Cross’ Hard Sun. Everything rides on the space-borne Shepard particle accelerator to strike it lucky with free energy for all (where the Hadron Collider is in all this is anyone’s guess).


Curiously, while the movie sets itself up as a cautionary tale of the dangers of messing with science – whatever is going on at CERN, I’m sure it was every cent of that $13bn+, complete with complementary staged human sacrifices – the free energy side is a success. Eventually. Only, it also brings in the humungous nasties that plague the other two Cloverfield movies (presumably the guys at Bad Robot were fired up by CERN conspiracy theories and how they might dovetail with the Cloverfield franchise, as one of the major ones has scientists using it to open portals to other dimensions, with the purpose of bringing through demonic entities). So I guess, on balance, it would have been better to take our chances with a permanent power outage.


This energy drought has – ahem – fuelled tensions between power blocs (“Russia’s threatening ground invasion now” – those guys just can’t catch a break as far as Hollywood goes, can they? Altercations are duly sparked on the station between the Russian and German representatives, as “Germany’s preparing for war”). Much of the information on what’s going on down below comes via Michael (Roger Davies), the boyfriend of mission scientist Ava (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). To give Davies the benefit of the doubt, Michael is such crumby character that I can’t really blame the actor for being hopelessly unconvincing. He’s stuck shouldering the entirely redundant Earth-side plot, and I’d be surprised if it wasn’t part of the too hastily written and cobbled together reshoots, designed to add tentative substance to the Cloverfield element.


These kinds of stories tend to work better when you don’t have the release of getting away from the claustrophobia of the base or station, and you don’t know how bad or worse things are back home. Continually returning to Earth, where something nasty is stomping about the place, with Michael rescuing a girl – who seems to be visually referenced as a younger version of Elizabeth Debicki’s alt-Earth Jensen; possibly the movie’s nod to the Mandela Effect? We’d need a clip from Moonraker where the girl does in fact have braces on her teeth, or Star Wars with both C-3P0’s legs painted gold, to be certain – and seeking shelter in a fallout bunker, breaks the tension in exactly the wrong way.


Mark Stambler: This experiment could unleash chaos, the likes of which we’ve never seen: monsters, demons, beasts from the sea. And not just here and now. In the past, in the future, in other dimensions.

To helpfully – or annoyingly – link all this to Cloverfield in verbalised fashion, there’s an alarmingly shameless exposition dump early on from Mark Stambler (Donal Logue), author of The Cloverfield Paradox, warning “Those who’ve accepted the Cloverfield Paradox is real know how dangerous that is. Every time they test it, they risk ripping open the membrane of space-time, shattering reality” and the bit about monsters, etc. This does, to be fair, retcon a fairly wide remit for what kind of stories the Cloverfield anthology series can tell; it’s just a shame it’s been partnered with such an ultimately disappointing story.


Initially, though, things look quite promising. It’s revealed that starting up the particle accelerator caused the station to jump to a parallel universe with another Earth, representing the main workings of the contradictory and baffling events suggested by the title. This is an Earth where the situation is even worse – there’s a 14-month-old European war with no sign of resolution – and characters are consequently more ruthless (it’s like the Star Trek mirror universe, or Fringe’s parallel Earth, only less fun). Although, I was confused by Jensen’s statement that “you erased my crew from existence”. Since they appeared on the other side of the Sun, and learn that Cloverfield Station there was destroyed and fell to Earth, how exactly did they effect this (I know: it’s a paradox! That answers everything!)?


While all this is going on, the picture is perfectly serviceable, aided considerably by strong performances, the actors doing their best to breathe life into characters that never evolve beyond types: Hamilton is the can-do female protagonist rising to leadership status but with pain in her past she needs to deal with (the latter element is particularly clumsy); Schmidt (Daniel Brühl), the single-minded lead scientist, even plotting to wrest control of the station at one point (the retrenchment that comes from finding his alt-self took even more treacherous actions gives Schmidt a touch more substance than the others, but only a touch); Kiel (David Oyelowo), the reliable leader who eventually sacrifices himself for the good of the mission; Volkov (Aksel Hennie, of Headhunters), the aggressive dissenting voice, because it wouldn’t do to have everyone getting on clinically well with each other; and Mundy (Chris O’Dowd), the comic relief. There’s also Tam (Ziyi Zhang) who makes little impression other than being Schmidt’s love interest and dying rather creatively (flash-frozen in a submerged compartment) and Monk (a bald John Ortiz), a devout doctor who becomes unaccountably squeamish at the prospect of cutting a fellow crewmember open.


Mundy: Well, we found the worms.

The structure follows the necessarily predictable path of whittling down its crew one by one. However, without a monster on the loose, it needs to achieve this largely through mishaps and mayhem. At least, until Jensen decides they’re all expendable. The aftermath of the transfer, as Volkov begins feeling unwell and finds his left eyeball lodged in the corner of his eye, and then the other corner, before 3-D printing a gun and, before he can use it, erupting rudely forth with the station’s supply of missing (test?) worms, is effectively gruey, intimating we may be in store for something closer to the body and psychological horror of Event Horizon or Prometheus; at what point the gyroscope appeared inside him is anyone’s guess, though, as you’d have thought he’d notice something that substantial (how Mundy’s arm was able to offer pointers bears even less scrutiny).


Mundy: Is there any chance it might grow back?

The best sustained pieces of strangeness however, occur either side of this. Jensen’s arrival on the station, materialising behind a wall, with power cables piercing through her flesh – it’s lucky medical advances come on in leaps and bounds over the next decade, such that she’s up and about in no time –  is redolent of Philadelphia Experiment lore (in which crew members were purported to have merged with bulkheads), further emphasised when Mundy’s arm is later swallowed into the same wall.


Mundy: My arm helped us find the Earth!

The sight of Mundy with a cleanly severed limb resembling a cartoon steak is both uncanny and funny, and only doubled down on when the arm itself shows up, the best (first?) sentient appendage we’ve seen since Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (“I think my arm’s trying to write something... What are you talking about, arm?”) If the makers had been canny, the weirdness would only have continued and even accelerated, rather than retreating into standard disaster movie tropes; the last such strangeness we see is the whipped up magnetic field melding Mundy and his futuristic metal sealant into a wall.


O’Dowd’s quips are definitely the highlight of the picture (“Even with one stumpy arm, I think I can get this done”), and in a more crowd-pleasing version, the reshoots would have done well to retcon him back to life. I’d certainly have been up for a goofier, Deep Blue Sea-esque digression over the way things stagnate in the last half hour, complete with Mundy’s arm suddenly appearing to save the day (presumably it survives the movie).


Ava: Go to your husband and your children right now. Go to them and hold them and kiss them and love them and know how blessed you are.

Alas, we’re expected to tear up over Ava’s message to her alt-self, after she has symbolically destroyed her warped dreams by shooting a hole in the station window/vid screen (frankly, even Kiel telling her that her plan to see her alt-self’s kids – who died in her reality – is nuts and her acknowledging it isn’t enough to give Ava a free pass for intending to initiate such a stupid course of action). I initially thought the final shot had the monster breaking through the clouds having swallowed the escape craft, which would have been a marvellously sick twist, but we didn’t even get that scrap.


The Cloverfield Project looks very nice, courtesy of Dan Mindel’s cinematography. Julius Onah directs competently, while Bear McCreary offers exactly the kind of score you’d expect for this sort of picture (forgettable). As B-movies go, there are far worse out there, and Netflix probably rightly saw it as a no-brainer acquisition, but it can’t help but be a disappointment for a picture with the Cloverfield brand attached, and inevitably calls the future of the series into question. Bad Robot has Overlord, a WWII Nazi-Zombie flick, due for (cinema) release in October, believed to be the next Cloverfield, so one assumes both JJ and Paramount were in agreement on the decision to hand this one to Netflix (gotta keep JJ sweet), aware of the inevitable “straight-to-video” jeers that would accompany the decision. Hopefully the third episode is merely a stumble, and Overlord – or whatever its title becomes – will be a bounce back.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

It was one of the most desolate looking places in the world.

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old, broadcast by the BBC on the centenary of Armistice Day, is "sold" on the attraction and curiosity value of restored, colourised and frame rate-enhanced footage. On that level, this World War I documentary, utilising a misquote from Laurence Binyon's poem for its title, is frequently an eye-opener, transforming the stuttering, blurry visuals that have hitherto informed subsequent generations' relationship with the War. However, that's only half the story; the other is the use of archive interviews with veterans to provide a narrative, exerting an effect often more impacting for what isn't said than for what is.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

You kind of look like a slutty Ebola virus.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
(SPOILERS) The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians – in the US at any rate, thus far – might lead one to think it's some kind of startling original, but the truth is, whatever its core demographic appeal, this adaptation of Kevin Kwan's novel taps into universally accepted romantic comedy DNA and readily recognisable tropes of family and class, regardless of cultural background. It emerges a smoothly professional product, ticking the expected boxes in those areas – the heroine's highs, lows, rejections, proposals, accompanied by whacky scene-stealing best friend – even if the writing is sometimes a little on the clunky side.

It seemed as if I had missed something.

Room 237 (2012)
Stanley Kubrick’s meticulous, obsessive approach towards filmmaking was renowned, so perhaps it should be no surprise to find comparable traits reflected in a section of his worshippers. Legends about the director have taken root (some of them with a factual basis, others bunkum), while the air of secrecy that enshrouded his life and work has duly fostered a range of conspiracy theories. A few of these are aired in Rodney Ascher’s documentary, which indulges five variably coherent advocates of five variably tenuous theories relating to just what The Shining is really all about. Beyond Jack Nicholson turning the crazy up to 11, that is. Ascher has hit on a fascinating subject, one that exposes our capacity to interpret any given information wildly differently according to our disposition. But his execution, which both underlines and undermines the theses of these devotees, leaves something to be desired.

Part of the problem is simply one of production values. The audio tra…

Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.

The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have a…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.