JJ Abrams got the drop on us all again with another heaping helping of Cloverfield that began streaming on Netflix right after the Super Bowl. And he is going for the proverbial touchdown which he does amazingly and considerable effort. That there is still life and intrigue left in his world of ugly but crafty monsters is even more remarkable.
Yet The Cloverfield Paradox story hits all the familiar notes played everywhere else by so many other sci-fi thrillers, more times than any would bother to count in 2017 alone. It goes like this — Earth is running out of energy so an international crew goes up into space on a space station, The Cloverfield (see what they did there), to fire up a super collider (The Shepard) as an experiment in sustainable energy. The power generated runs the risk of altering time and space — or unleashing hell — but, ah, who cares? People are dying and that’s some crackpot theory.
They turn it on and the planet either disappears or they get…lost in space. Right away, people on the ship start acting strange, stuff goes missing, gross aberrations of the human body occur, and a mysterious woman (Elizabeth Debicki) claiming to be part of the mission is found on board.
A lot goes on in an under-two-hour span of time and the temptation, or pragmatic approach, for this type of affair, is usually to make the narrative as much about the entire group as possible. But Abrams’s gang doesn’t go that route, assigning the main character Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha Raw) to be the glue holding everything together. Her story arc is typical but played nicely; she leaves her family behind to go on this mission keeping her away for over a year until the fateful collider test. And it is she the mystery woman, named Jensen, identifies by name and seems to know.
Cloverfield Paradox deals in sci-fi tropes and suspense but dabbles in geopolitical intrigue as well. The crew is made up of scientists from the UK, Ireland (for some reason), Brazil, Russia, Germany, the US, and China (a surprise appearance by Ziyi Zhang who only comes around every so often). Another World War involving Russia and Germany is set to break out over fuel. This is relayed through conversations and news stories; viewer and cast are as much in the dark about it as they were in the first one about military strategy against the Cloverfield beast.
An additional story plays out on Earth involving Hamilton’s beau, Michael (Roger Davies), and a little girl he rescues. Their arc doesn’t have much to write home about, though they do wind up in a recognizable bunker. In the end, they only serve to pad the running time and tease the existence of strange creatures (ones you don’t see til the end, unless you saw the first one).
Keen on creating an integrated universe (a Cloververse, if you will) and connecting films that are vaguely related — something all the rage today at cinemas — Abrams expands on ideas begun as fan theories — also more common than you think. Parallel dimensions facilitate the conditions that make this a series, one that shows no signs of slowing. A fourth Cloverfield is slated for release in October.[Nobody had any clue they were shooting all this?]
But you shouldn’t think of The Cloverfield Paradox as a mere thread made for completists tying the whole menagerie of ideas together.
Unto itself, it works as a pretty surprisingly clever haunted house in space concept. The word “demon” is thrown around early to draw the comparison thematically (by Donal Logue as an author to be seen as a charlatan related to John Goodman’s antagonist from the last installment), but the film grounds the spooky happenings in science or some modicum of it. Crawling limbs, hallucinations, body horror, and stowaways are treated overtly as quantum anomalies that possess the same flavor as the usual ghostly activity but from a disparate category.
An occasion of automatic writing arises, somewhat like what happens at a seance, performed by a severed arm — which is one of a few memorable moments. The scene when Jensen first appears is also offbeat and worth a slight cringe. And there is this thing having to do with worms!
If you are a follower of all things Cloverfield, or not, you will enjoy the presentation of Paradox and the way it unfolds. Not everything thrown at the wall sticks but it doesn’t really have to. It’s an edge-of-your-seat ride with striking visuals and one good final jolt.