Cloverfield is more of a brand than a franchise. J.J. Abrams, whose Bad Robot production company is behind the films, has made it clear that movies bearing the Cloverfield name are not directly related so much as “connected to” each other. That said, it wasn’t too hard to find a through-line between its 2007 debut and 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane. Despite being completely different films — one was an apocalyptic found-footage monster flick, the other a claustrophobic chamber drama — they shared both a common milieu and a unique perspective in the realm of apocalyptic sci-fi. The sequel also posited the brand as a breeding ground for off-kilter sci-fi, a place where character-driven portraits could exist against a pre-established ruin. It’s a shame, then, that the third film in this experiment, The Cloverfield Paradox, is such a retread, a pastiche of well-worn sci-fi tropes that leaves little room for creativity.
It starts promisingly enough. Gugu Mbatha Raw‘s Ava Hamilton and her husband, Michael (Roger Davies), live on an Earth that’s stricken with an energy crisis. A scientist (of some sort), she joins the crew of Cloverfield Station in an effort to launch the Shepard particle accelerator, which if successful, could create an unlimited supply of energy. A pundit played by national treasure Donal Logue warns that such experiments could open up portals to other dimensions and, in a wild leap, flood the Earth with monsters and demons. Unsurprisingly, things don’t go all that great with the particle accelerator; in fact, they may, as Hamilton and the crew realize, have completely eliminated their home planet after one seemingly successful experiment. Strangeness, as you might imagine, follows. A mysterious crew member arrives, a possession takes hold, and the walls begin eating people. Or something.
It’s Lost in 105 minutes — an unfolding array of neat, amusing, and uncanny ideas that drift into the ether once the writers realize they don’t know how to end this thing and should probably look to their forebears. In this case, those forebears are the VHS staples of yesteryear, whether it be classics like Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey or (delightful) schlock like Event Horizon. Dimensions are traversed, distrust is sewn, airlocks are shattered, and escape pods deployed — you’ve seen it all before.
Still, director Julius Onah achieves some striking visuals in terms of spacecraft and futuristic innovation (3D-printed bagels!), and the overqualified cast — Mbatha-Raw, Chris O’Dowd, Ziyi Zhang, Daniel Bruhl, David Oyelowo — occasionally find inspiration in a script by Oren Uziel that’s absurdly light on character development. While several of the crew members adhere to recognizable archetypes — surprise: O’Dowd is “the funny one” — few are afforded even the lightest brush of personality and motivation that Ridley Scott and James Cameron were so adept at layering into their intergalactic ensembles. Mbatha-Raw’s Hamilton is given a rich backstory, but it motivates her only in the series’ third act, when her role as de facto protagonist finally begins to make sense. Oyelowo, a Golden Globe nominee who turned heads as Martin Luther King, Jr. in 2015’s Selma, on the other hand, is tasked here with dialogue about how “this dimension is eating us alive.” Woof.
But The Cloverfield Paradox isn’t boring, nor does it crumble beneath the weight of its absurdities. Did it deserve a Super Bowl spot and the weight of a post-game premiere event? Absolutely not, and the hype that it was afforded as such won’t do it any favors for viewers expecting the next Gravity. It’s weird, intermittently amusing gobbledygook that should help a drowsy weeknight pass a bit quicker. Unfortunately, mediocrity won’t do much for the Cloverfield brand, which set a high bar for itself with 10 Cloverfield Lane. Though, hey, maybe their aims aren’t as ambitious as we once imagined; Abrams did say Bad Robot wants to release one Cloverfield film a year, and a fourth film in the “franchise,” set during World War II, has already finished filming. There are worse things in life than a steady sci-fi brand — some of those Resident Evil sequels are dumb fun, right? — so we might also do well to lower our expectations and take the good with the bad. Film could use a few more aliens these days.