Even as a fan of the series, I have to admit that the best part of the so-called “Cloververse,” a series of loosely connected sci-fi horror anthology films produced by J.J. Abrams (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”), is the marketing. The first entry, “Cloverfield,” dropped a cryptic trailer that showed only the release date and hinted at the found-footage monster flick premise with the unforgettable shot of the decapitated Statue of Liberty. Eight years later, a movie shot under the name “Valencia,” was revealed by its first trailer to be a sequel with the title “10 Cloverfield Lane” just a month before its release. And during Super Bowl LII, the first preview for the third chapter in the series aired, revealing not just the title, “The Cloverfield Paradox,” but that it would be dropping on Netflix immediately following the game. It’s undeniably fun marketing, but in this case, it has the unfortunate side effect of overshadowing the lackluster movie advertised.
Before it descends into dull set pieces in its second half, “The Cloverfield Paradox” begins quite strong. The opening 45 minutes are smartly paced, have the feel of something new enough to excite yet familiar enough to relate to and best of all, doesn’t rely on jump scares to communicate its atmosphere. It asks intriguing questions not just about the direction of its own story but about the place of that story in the greater universe.
It’s when it tries to answer those questions that everything falls apart. True to its title, the more “The Cloverfield Paradox” tries to explain the strange happenings that plague the crew of Cloverfield Station, the less sense it makes. Likewise, the more viewers try to go down the rabbit hole of understanding the movie, the less enjoyable it becomes. It never reaches the heights that it does in the “‘Alien’ meets ‘The Shining’” mash-up of the first act. There’s an attempt to fix the monster-sized plot holes by having characters state more than once that logic does not dictate the events of the film, yet it then continues to still try to explain them away.
The argument will be made that the unintelligibility of the plot is a byproduct of cramming an existing script into a universe it wasn’t built for, but I’m not sure how true that is. “The Cloverfield Paradox” is a mess even without the subplot that loosely retells the events of the first film from a different perspective. It’s pointless, but it’s also about the only thing in the movie that leads to any sort of payoff for fans.
The only unwavering beacon of light that stands throughout the entire runtime is Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s (“Miss Sloane”) performance. From beginning to end, she is positively electric and communicates the humanity that the rest of the movie is missing. The decisions her character makes don’t always make sense, but she commits to the material and the resultant turn is well worth it. Chris O’Dowd (“Molly’s Game”) is a welcome presence as well, and the levity he brings to the proceedings makes even the most senseless scenes somewhat enjoyable. The single best line of the movie belongs to him.
Unfortunately, balancing their work is Elizabeth Debicki (“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”) who somehow goes the entire movie without emoting once. It’s another case of either a director or a performer misreading “emotionless” for “creepy,” and it results in moments that could have been moody falling completely flat. The internal struggle her character undergoes could have been interesting with better treatment, but like the rest of the cast and the story, she too eventually falls prey to a critical lack of common sense.
Fans of the “Cloverfield” movies will likely find something to enjoy here. The moments when “Paradox” briefly intersects with the first film are fun Easter eggs, and Mbatha-Raw’s performance helps weather the more senseless scenes. It’s newcomers who will be disappointed most of all, and if the series wants to capture new fans as the Super Bowl spot would suggest, it will need to do better than this in the future.