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A sci-fi franchise gets lost in space with Netflix's 'The Cloverfield Paradox'

A sci-fi franchise gets lost in space with Netflix's 'The Cloverfield Paradox'
Elizabeth Debicki, one of the high points of "The Cloverfield Paradox." But none of the twists, for all their dimension-hopping audacity, seem coherently or intelligently thought through. (Scott Garfield / Netflix)

The "Cloverfield" movies so far have been governed by a fairly simple premise — an alien invasion of Earth is underway. But the films' distribution and marketing strategies have been anything but straightforward.

As a storyteller, the producer J.J. Abrams has proved himself to be a serviceable recycler of B-movie ideas, but as a master of event-movie showmanship he has relatively few equals. He takes an impish delight in ambushing the audience, in trotting out the kinds of promotional gimmicks that arrest our attention, even as they threaten to reduce the movies themselves to mere afterthoughts.

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Abrams and Paramount Pictures stirred up a lot of excitement with their stealthy, spoiler-averse ad campaign for "Cloverfield" (2008), a clumsy but self-consciously clever Manhattan monster movie told entirely through "found footage." Eight years later, the studio classed up the series considerably with "10 Cloverfield Lane," a superior captivity thriller so unexpectedly tense and well acted, it was no surprise to learn that it had been conceived as a stand-alone item and was reverse-engineered into a "Cloverfield" movie late into the process.

In "The Cloverfield Paradox" David Oyelowo, center, leads the Cloverfield space station crew. John Ortiz, left, is the team's God-fearing conscience and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, right, can't wait to get back to earth.
In "The Cloverfield Paradox" David Oyelowo, center, leads the Cloverfield space station crew. John Ortiz, left, is the team's God-fearing conscience and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, right, can't wait to get back to earth. (Scott Garfield / Netflix)

In a series where anything goes, it was perhaps a shrewd decision for Netflix, the distributor of "The Cloverfield Paradox," to release this third chapter immediately after the Super Bowl broadcast Sunday night — and to first announce that release only hours before. Never mind the fact that your game-day pizza boxes were probably ejected with more fanfare. It turned out to be a fitting release strategy for a movie that demands to be consumed — if it must be consumed at all — under the booziest, most anticlimactic circumstances possible.

Only in a room dominated by the sounds of celebratory (or commiserative) beer clinking and leftover nacho scarfing can the nuances of Oren Uziel's script be properly appreciated. Rather than lobbing your questions and exclamations into the silent void of a darkened theater — "wait, what just happened?" "What's going on with that dude's face?" "Ewww!" — you and your friends can discuss them among yourselves, and perhaps even come to a few satisfactory conclusions where the filmmakers have neglected to provide any.

After a brief prologue establishing a devastating energy crisis on Earth, the Nigerian American director Julius Onah whisks us aboard the Cloverfield Space Station, where a crew has spent more than a year trying to harness a new power source. Led by Cmdr. Kiel (David Oyelowo), the team begins testing an extraordinarily powerful particle accelerator that could save their planet from permanent blackout. Unfortunately, it could also "rip open the membrane of space time," unleashing chaos on a truly monstrous scale — a risk that these astronauts have little choice but to take.

There are early warning signs of a less-than-unified front, thanks to some strained bickering between the two shiftiest staffers (Aksel Hennie and Daniel Brühl). But we are meant to take solace in the professionalism and decency of Tam (Zhang Ziyi), the most fluent of the many Mandarin speakers on board, and Monk (John Ortiz), the team's God-fearing conscience, as well as the comic relief supplied by Mundy (Chris O'Dowd). And it's easy enough to warm to the movie's protagonist, Ava Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a devoted team player who can't wait to be reunited with her husband (Roger Davies) back on Earth.

Ziyi Zhang, left, and Daniel Bruhl as crew members of the Cloverfield Space Station.
Ziyi Zhang, left, and Daniel Bruhl as crew members of the Cloverfield Space Station. (Scott Garfield / Netflix)

Naturally, nothing goes according to plan. Despite its efforts to sidestep some of the more obvious clichés of its chosen subgenre, "The Cloverfield Paradox" falls very much in that tradition of movies that play out like "And Then There Were None" in space, in which the individual astronaut characters struggle to be as memorable as their death scenes. There are a few surprising developments, many of them involving some awfully creative bodily trauma. Certainly no picture that finds room for Elizabeth Debicki could be reckoned a complete waste of time.

But what excitement this movie is able to muster soon gives way to the startling realization that virtually none of its twists, for all their dimension-hopping audacity, have been coherently or intelligently thought through. Narrative incompetence is one of the more venial sins of big-budget filmmaking, but there is something particularly ugly and cynical about the sloppiness of "The Cloverfield Paradox," as if its status as a franchise stepping stone excused its blithe contempt for the audience's satisfaction.

Die-hard "Cloverfield" conspiracy theorists can distract themselves by figuring out this story's relationship with the other two films, even if the connections feel vague and scattershot at best. And even self-identifying fans may be dispirited by the degree to which the movie plays like a retread of innumerable other science-fiction thrillers, including the "Alien" movies, "Event Horizon," "Sunshine," "Europa Report" and last year's underappreciated "Life," which died a premature death in theaters.

A similarly indifferent box-office fate might well have awaited "The Cloverfield Paradox" before its original distributor, Paramount, doubtless aware that its price tag (north of $40 million) was grossly disproportionate to either its quality or its potential, wound up selling the movie to Netflix, ensuring it at least a blip in the annals of great publicity ploys. Perhaps that's the true meaning of the "Cloverfield" paradox, whereby the high-profile disappointments of the past can be instantly configured into the event movies of the future. It's a pretty neat trick, even if it's the audience that winds up paying the difference.

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'The Cloverfield Paradox'

(In English and Mandarin with English subtitles)

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children uner the age of 17)

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes

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Playing: Streaming on Netflix

When: Anytime

Reviews of past 'Cloverfield' movies:

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