Two very unexpected things happened at the Super Bowl earlier this week:
1. The Philadelphia Eagles triumphed over the New England Patriots, proving that Tom Brady is, in fact, fallible.
2. An unannounced trailer for the third Cloverfield movie aired, claiming that the flick was to be released on Netflix right after the game.
A long time ago - too long for some - the second sequel of the Cloverfield franchise was announced, titled The God Particle, and what followed was the film's suffering through something not unlike the dreaded Development Hell. But then, completely out of the blue, the movie's new title is revealed - The Cloverfield Paradox - with a Netflix premiere the very night of its surprise announcement. It was an unprecedented move - drop the first and only trailer for your movie mere hours before its release? Who does that? Evidently the guys at Bad Robot. In a way, it's a genius move, not only in its unexpectedness, but in the fact that the movie's large fanbase has been anticipating it ever since, well, the first Cloverfield hit theaters back in 2008. All in all, it was kind of a brilliant tactic.
Of course, after actually watching The Cloverfield Paradox, one begins to realize that the tactic might have simply been practical.
Some movies benefit from the Netflix treatment in lieu of a theatrical release. These movies don't necessarily have low production value or anything like that, but rather they carry the distinct possibility of not doing so hot at the box office. Gerald's Game, for example, while being a Stephen King adaptation in the midst of a Big Stephen King Movie Boom, was based on a more obscure novel - at least when it came to the general audience. For instance, compare it with IT, an immensely popular book that damned near everybody had wished to see on the big screen. Gerald's Game lacks that kind of reputation. But the lesser known novel deserved a solid movie adaptation nonetheless, so instead of taking the risk of projecting it onto the silver screen, the smarter and safer move was to have it streaming on smaller screens. It's anybody’s guess whether or not Gerald's Game would've done well in theaters, but we'll never know. What we do know, however, is that it was a hit on Netflix.
Much like Gerald's Game, The Cloverfield Paradox was best suited for streaming. But the problem with the third Cloverfield movie didn't lie in a potential box office bombing, but rather in its likelihood of being poorly received by critics. In fact, as I write this, the flick sits at a sad 18% on Rotten Tomatoes, a score which it more or less deserves.
But before we get into that, let me take you to a simpler time, way back when Netflix was popular if only as an alternative to Blockbuster.
The year is 2007. George W. Bush is nearing his last days in office. Facebook isn't half as big as MySpace. And fans of movies and comic books alike are schvitzing after learning that the guy from Brokeback Mountain will be playing the Joker in the next Batman flick. Meanwhile, lurking quietly on various internet forums is a group of sci-fi and horror fanatics neck-deep in one of the very first online-based viral marketing campaigns for an upcoming movie. They don't know much about this picture save for what they've gathered from a shaky-cam teaser, a vague poster, and two or three websites riddled with clues and Easter eggs and a breadcrumb trail going God-knows-where. With only that much to go on, wild theories and speculations are thrown about: is this a Voltron movie? Are its secrets hidden within that one Wolfmother song? And is the unseen monster terrorizing New York a massive lion? The theories were mostly ridiculous - but that's bound to happen when you're being led down the rabbit hole by not much more than a website for some shady fictional Japanese corporation that specializes in deep-sea research, advanced technology, and a Slurpee-like beverage whose puzzling slogan is "You Can't Drink Just Six." Yeah... the marketing for this flick was just as weird as the theories surrounding it. But it was all in good fun. While those Batman fans were losing their collective minds over the Joker-casting of Heath Ledger, the folks enraptured by Cloverfield's viral marketing campaign were having the time of their lives, not remotely upset over the absurd possibility that this might be a horror movie about a giant lion.
Then finally, on the immortalized 1-18-08, the found-footage horror movie hit theaters, and although the film's mysterious monster had been granted very little screentime, it decidedly was not a giant lion. Instead, viewers were given a unique, original monster - one whose origin was left unknown (although those who had followed the viral marketing campaign had a good idea of the monster's subaquatic origins). The movie played almost as a horror-fueled Sleeping Beauty, with the main character scaling a tower (see also: half-demolished skyscraper) to find his unconscious princess (see also: ex-fling) and awaken her with a kiss. But surrounding this twisted tale was the giant beast (lovingly nicknamed Clovie by fans) and its dog-sized sewer-roaming parasites whose bites caused victims to explode. For the most part, Cloverfield was well-received by critics and fans. Even after the film's release, the viral marketing and the fan speculations went on, and to this day they haven't really died out.
Eight years later, in 2016, Bad Robot produced the long-awaited sequel to Cloverfield - 10 Cloverfield Lane. This one, starring big-names John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, would be made on a budget higher than its 2008 counterpart. Unlike its predecessor, 10 Cloverfield Lane was not presented in the found footage format, going instead with the more common third-person narrative. Also unlike its predecessor, the movie had absolutely nothing to do with Clovie or his terroristic parasites. Despite this, the two movies were, in fact, tied together, if only by a single albeit important thread: in 10 Cloverfield Lane, a neon Slusho! sign can be spotted in the window of a convenience store, and an envelope mailed from Tagruato - the prior mentioned shady Japanese corporation - appears later in the film, though again very briefly. But the bigger connection between the two vastly different films was still blurry... until two years later, aka several days ago, when the third Cloverfield movie was unexpectedly released through Netflix.
The God Particle was renamed The Cloverfield Paradox, which is a title as silly as the movie itself. In the year 2028, a group of qualified men and women aboard a space station (naturally dubbed Cloverfield) attempt to solve Earth's energy crisis via a massive orbiting particle accelerator. When the particle accelerator goes bananas and teleports to some unknown spot in outer space, the crew must figure out how to get back to their planet - and universe - all while dealing with an array of reality-bending horrors popping up all over the ship. There's no point beating around the bush: The Cloverfield Paradox is a mess. The writing and editing sucks, the pacing is inconsistent, and the performances, with the exception of Gugu Mbatha-Raw (what a name) and Elizabeth Debicki, are abysmal. Even though it premiered the night of its announcement, one could argue that the hype for this flick had kicked off long before Super Bowl LII, going as far back as 2008. Bearing that in mind, the movie did not live up to its maybe-decade-long hype.
What the movie more or less did do, however, is shed some light on how the confusing Cloverfield universe is connected.
WARNING: SPOILERS ABOUND!!!
One of the more memorable characters in The Cloverfield Paradox is Mark Stambler, an Alex Jones-like conspiracy theorist who speaks out against the Cloverfield's particle accelerator (and this is, unfortunately, his only scene in the movie). In his own words, he warns that "every time they test [the accelerator] they risk ripping open the membrane of space-time, smashing together multiple dimensions, shattering reality... everywhere. This experiment could unleash... monsters, demons, beasts from the sea... And not just here and now; in the past, in the future, in other dimensions..." It's a bit on the nose, but his foreboding rant makes references to the previous movies of the Cloververse - "beasts from the sea" is an obvious nod to Clovie, who, as fans have deduced, came from the depths of the ocean, while "monsters" and "demons" could refer to the end of 10 Cloverfield Lane, when (SPOILERS!) it's revealed that Earth has been invaded by alien entities. Mark's mention of the past, future, and other dimensions alludes to the fact that Cloverfield takes place back in 2008 while the events of 10 Cloverfield Lane presumably unfold in or around 2016 - and, of course, the all-but-confirmed theory that each of the three movies takes place in a different parallel dimension, all of which are connected, it seems, by the space-time tear created by the particle accelerator.
The name "Mark Stambler" stood out to aficionados of the Cloververse, as John Goodman's character in 10 Cloverfield Lane is the similarly named Howard Stambler. Just how the two are related is anybody's guess, although it's been suggested that Mark could be Howard's son or nephew or whatever. The point is, they're obviously family, if only across multiple dimensions. And, as per usual, at the center of all of this confusion and chaos is the Tagruato corporation, being that its name is plastered all over the Cloverfield Station. Oh, and lest we forget, Clovie's big momma shows up at the end of The Cloverfield Paradox. Emphasis on the word big.
Earlier I mentioned an array of reality-bending horrors with which the Cloverfield crew is forced to deal. These horrors are completely nonsensical, ranging from an impossible wall that painlessly removes Chris O'Dowd's right arm to the teleportation of earthworms into the head of Norwegian actor Aksel Hennie. Such inexplicable oddities are blatantly inspired by Event Horizon, but given a comical twist. The bizarre occurrences are super entertaining and promise to give an anthropomorphic, almost juvenile funhouse malice to the space station, but that promise is cut short when the events constantly fail to deliver on what could have been a real hoot. 2008's Cloverfield was, at its core, the story of a pathetic jabroni who finds the courage to rescue the woman he loves in the middle of a devastating monster attack. 10 Cloverfield Lane was a tense thriller centered around a young woman forced to overcome her inability to face peril head-on. And then you've got The Cloverfield Paradox, which should have been the flipside of all that - a science-fiction comedy that relies on its oddball atmosphere in lieu of anything tense or austere. At times, a comedy is exactly what this flick strives to be, and that's what gives it strength. But any of the movie's potential humor and heart is drained by its heavy-handed emotional plot, whose resolution is unexciting, unengaging, and unimportant. The other two Cloverfield films may have benefited from a darker tone, but the unnecessary attempt to replicate that vibe is exactly what ends up crippling The Cloverfield Paradox.
I have read arguments in defense of The Cloverfield Paradox, most of which claim that it's simply not to be taken seriously. Sure, some movies require temporarily muting your logic receptors and sure, some flicks are meant solely to be fun and not to be taken seriously, and yeah, sometimes those movies don't suck. But when a movie aims for a charmingly cheesy sci-fi/b-horror feel and fails to find its footing as it takes itself far too seriously than it should, it's bound to suck. If your movie features a disembodied arm that can drag itself about and write helpful little notes, you have every reason to embrace the lunacy and go wild with it. The Cloverfield Paradox gets close to going all-out nuts, but then eases back and tries to be some semblance of cinematic, employing lazy tropes and irritating conclusions. To wit: there is a fight scene toward the end of the movie wherein Gugu Mbatha-Raw could literally use a hand, and in the middle of that scene Chris O'Dowd's disembodied arm is randomly shown drumming its fingers in the background. It's a perfect setup for the arm to be snatched by Gugu and used in the fight to slap the hell out of Elizabeth Debicki, but instead the arm is never used for anything for the remainder of the film. The only reason it was shown at all was as a reminder that it exists. Frustratingly anticlimactic crap like that only weakens The Cloverfield Paradox, and the reason for such lazy writing is glaringly obvious: this movie was initially written as a standalone sci-fi picture not remotely attached to the Cloververse. Thus the prospect of running with hilarious absurdity like slapping someone with a dismembered arm is made to collect dust on the backburner in favor of contrived links to the Cloverfield franchise. It's pretty much been confirmed that the entire plan behind the Cloverfield films has been to take otherwise unremarkable science-fiction spec scripts and shoehorn them into the Cloververse - a tactic which may or may not result in hamfisted garbage. So why bother forcing a connection at all? The answer is simple enough: similar to rousing brands like Star Wars, Marvel, and, ye gods, Transformers, if you smack your movie with the familiar and revered "Cloverfield" label, it's guaranteed to rake in a ton of cash. Whether or not the movie stinks isn't important; as long as it smashes the box office, you're golden. The guys over at Bad Robot appear to have learned, however, that maybe the quality of your movie really doesmatter, at least to some extent. Which is exactly why they opted to hand over The Cloverfield Paradox to Netflix instead of cinemas, where the franchise undoubtedly would have sustained significant damage. Since viewers paid nothing to see The Cloverfield Paradox (save for the monthly Netflix subscription fee), those who didn't enjoy the flick have only wasted their time, which is preferable to wasting one's money. This allows Bad Robot to give their next Cloververse movie a worry-free theatrical release, which they very much plan on doing. It's a smart move for sure, and it goes without saying that audiences will flock to the theater in droves the moment the movie comes out. (Hell, I know I'll be there.) But after the disappointment of The Cloverfield Paradox - which seems to play the most important role in the Cloververse - will the next Cloverfield movie be able to salvage the franchise by not being bad? Can the fat cats over at Bad Robot avoid defeat at the hands of their own hubris? Or are we currently witnessing the unfortunate demise of yet another promising film series?
Maybe Mark Stambler was right, and this little experiment could unleash all kinds of disastrous trash. Should that be the case, at least we can find some comfort in knowing that somewhere, in some other dimension, somebody's getting a good Cloverfield movie.