Friday, February 23, 2018

Death By Franchise: The Cloverfield Paradox

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in The Cloverfield Paradox, currently streaming on Netflix.

Note: This review contains spoilers for The Cloverfield Paradox (as well as Bad Robot’s other Cloverfield films).

I’m very fond of Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, but as I mentioned when I wrote on that film in 2016, its connection to Bad Robot’s Cloverfield brand is not only unnecessary, it’s actively detrimental to the film’s overall quality. But, since it wouldn’t have been green-lit without this connection, I have to grin and bear it, because the taut little thriller living inside that brand-name wrapper is worth it. The Cloverfield Paradox, unfortunately the next in what has apparently become a series of spec scripts turned into franchise films by Bad Robot does not have the added benefit of being excellent on its own. It’s a scattered and inconsistent sci-fi thriller whose Cloverfield connections are even more painfully shoehorned in than its predecessor’s.

It irritates me to no end that mind-numbing sci-fi dreck like Life (2017) can get released in theatres, but a script like Oren Uziel’s “God Particle,” which became The Cloverfield Paradox, can’t even make it to Netflix on its own merits. There’s meat on these bones: an energy crisis in the near future forces an international body to test a dangerous particle accelerator, in the hopes that it will provide endless clean energy. It’s such a dicey endeavour that it can only be done in space, so a station is constructed in low Earth orbit and overseen by a diverse international crew of scientists and technicians, who risk tearing space-time itself into pieces each time they attempt to turn the thing on. All the ingredients are here for some fun, outlandish sci-fi thrills, and though Paradox manages to execute on a couple great sequences, it’s undone by its studio-mandated need to incorporate the Cloverfield “timeline” (such as it is) into its story. The titular paradox, caused by the accelerator, is what Bad Robot uses as its convenient excuse for slapping the word "Cloverfield" in the title, and in spectacularly lazy fashion, the script that was once "God Particle" is suddenly injected with giant monsters.

This is frustrating because if it had been planned and executed with more confidence, this strategy might actually have made for a uniquely creative franchise. I love the idea of smart spec scripts being brought into the big-budget fold, when they might otherwise have never seen the light of day. I love the idea of a series of movies whose connections to one another live in the background, and offer strong genre filmmaking as their primary draw. This could have been an excellent blockbuster anthology franchise, with new casts, new filmmakers, and new styles for each entry, the likes of which cinema hasn’t been able to replicate since EON’s James Bond films. But Bad Robot hasn’t been able to capitalize on that lofty idea, instead giving us film after film whose connection to one another feels ever more false and tenuous, and whose practical cinematic value is diminishing rapidly.

Director Julius Onah successfully taps the potential of Uziel’s script for Paradox’s first half, which is a genuinely fun space-station romp. Once the paradox kicks off and the inter-dimensional shenanigans begin, I was thoroughly enjoying the film: gravity goes haywire, strange worms make crew members into unwilling hosts, someone loses an arm. It’s great. A “new” shipmate is introduced in almost Cronenberg-esque fashion, in what is probably my favourite scene in the whole thing. Bear McCreary’s bombastic score, clearly designed to evoke the tone of Michael Giacchino’s original Godzilla-inspired Cloverfield theme, helps the action sprint along at a brisk pace. This part of the film is so pulpy you have to chew through it. But once the plot takes over in the second half, the script loses its footing, and the film rapidly becomes tiresome. The screen time devoted to the Cloverfield emergences on Earth would have been put to much better use if they had explored the relationships between the crew, and patched some of the logical holes that begin to let the air out of the movie. My suspension of disbelief was stretched far beyond its breaking point by these issues, and since the film was too busy tripping over its messy logic to bother being fun anymore, I checked out. 

Paradox’s one saving grace is its cast, who show up with performances fit for a film three times as good as this one. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is vivid and powerful in the lead role, and she’s supported by equally strong and unpredictable performances from David Oyelowo and Elizabeth Debicki. The rest of the cast, including consistent performers like Daniel Brühl and Zhang Ziyi, unfortunately aren’t given much to chew on, and feel a bit stranded by the film’s limited interest in them beyond engineering ways to kill them off. It’s worth noting that the diverse representation in the casting is genuinely great, and it’s wonderful to see a sci-fi film headlined (and effortlessly carried) by a woman of colour. (An aside: I get that they wanted a comic-relief character to crack jokes and break tension a charge which known Irish funnyman Chris O’Dowd fulfills with relish but man, since we’re on the subject of representation, it would have been nice to see a Canadian up there! The U.S., China, Russia, Britain, Brazil, and Germany all get a seat. Since when does Ireland get to board the sci-fi vessel before we do? Shameful.) I wish that Paradox had been more concerned with utilizing its talented cast for a more focused and more consistently enjoyable story, rather than abandoning them for its franchise pretensions, which at this point are nothing less than a disease that’s killing otherwise capable films.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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