The Cloverfield Paradox

Year: 2018
Production Co: Bad Robot
Studio: Paramount
Director: Julius Onah
Producer: Jj Abrams
Writer: Oren Uziel
Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Daniel Brühl, Chris O'Dowd, Elizabeth Debicki, David Oyelowo, Ziyi Zhang, John Ortiz, Askel Hennie

Most people's history with this film prior to seeing it is a lot more storied than anything in the film itself. Like many, I remember when JJ Abrams/Bad Robot first announced a project called God Particle, about a crew on an orbiting spaceship when Earth disappears below them. It seemed to be trading on the silly meme around at the time they first switched the Large Hadron Collider on – that it would create a black hole that would swallow us all – and promised Abrams' brand of thrilling, cinematic sci fi.

Then it emerged it would actually be part of the Cloverfield universe, a series that's become the very model of the law of diminishing returns. But after loving Cloverfield and liking 10 Cloverfield Lane fine (until it went on too long and turned into a Cloverfield movie right at the end instead of the psychological horror movie it had been), I was even more intrigued.

Then it became one of the first movies that seem to be signalling Paramount's death knell. Bereft of big hits since they released Iron Man back before Disney owned Marvel, it seems strange that the studio would take its only big flashy sci-fi blockbuster and just sell it to Netflix. As someone using a sports metaphor would probably say, not bothering to swing is a sure fire way not to score. Although if the history of the critical and audience reaction proves anything, maybe they would have avoided a financially crippling flop.

Then it arrived, and the reviews were almost universally terrible. I found it hard to believe – would someone as good as JJ Abrams allow such a bad movie to be made on his watch and under his umbrella?

It's not great (it's not even particularly good) but it's nothing like as bad as you've heard. The biggest problem with it is that it either doesn't follow the rules of its own universe or there simply wasn't a properly-sketched canvas to hang it all on – director Julius Onah chucking whatever idea someone thought was cool at a wall to see what stuck.

It's the near future, apparently in the same universe where the giant monster attacked New York and where John Goodman kept Mary Elizabeth Winstead locked in his basement, but there's no mention yet of the Cloverfield monster or its effects. There is a spiking energy crisis that's going to see humanity descend into all-out war any minute unless an experimental energy source taking place on an orbiting space station can be perfected.

In the opening scene, waiting with her boyfriend in a long line for gas when the power goes out yet again, astronaut and energy tech Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha Raw) lets him convince her she should take part in the mission, so off she goes, joined by a disparate group of international scientists, engineers and the like to try to perfect the particle accelerator experiment that will solve Earth's energy shortage.

After a few attempts, having been in space for over a year and with everyone's nerves fraying, the fuse is lit again and this time, it's stable. But the celebration is short lived when it results in a massive explosion aboard. When the crew drag themselves, dazed, from blazing alarms and wreckage, they find the universe around them has changed. For one thing, Earth has disappeared utterly. Second, there's a creepy noise coming from behind a wall panel and they open it up to find a woman howling in pain, the pipes and ducts of the ship's insides embedded through her somehow.

The first clue about what's gone wrong is when we see a photo of the crew. The Chinese engineer Tam (Ziyi Zhang) is gone from the picture, and someone we don't know named Jensen (Elizabeth Debicki) – the same tall, blonde Australian they've pulled out of the wall – is there instead.

More clues pile up, from the terrifying (Russian engineer Voklov's eye starts moving by itself, and a missing part critical for the particle accelerator ends up inside his body) to the comical (Chris O'Dowd as Irish engineer Mundy's arm disappears through a wall panel and is completely removed, only to show up later moving on its own), but taken together they're the film's biggest problem. A few more rewatches might mean the strange occurrences aboard the space station make sense, but the film itself isn't really compelling enough to revisit.

To talk about what's happened or where they've ended up would pretty much be a major spoiler, but the race is on to find Earth/get back to where they came from, figure out who Jensen is, uncover all the other secrets about the people and machinery aboard and get back to the job at hand of solving Earth's energy crisis.

There's a bunch of personal motivations thrown in when it turns out Jensen doesn't necessarily want them to return to where they came from, and the fact that Hamilton's kid died in a house fire a few years before. So because it all makes sense to the plot it's hard to tell exactly which elements sputter. Maybe it's the tone – horror, sci-fi and occasional levity jammed together a bit too unceremoniously.

Other than that it's hard to understand the vitriol. The science is bad but so is that of plenty of lauded movies like Avengers: Infinity War. The science fiction isn't the worst you've ever seen. For me it's all to do with the set pieces and ideas just not explaining themselves very well.

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