The Cloverfield movies are science fiction, but what Netflix pulled off with the surprise post–Super Bowl launch of The Cloverfield Paradox is more akin to alchemy. A mere two days ago, the movie then known as God Particle was an oft-delayed entry in J.J. Abrams’ amorphous franchise that had shifted more than a year from its initial release date—and was still undergoing reshoots as recently as December. While its predecessors, 2008’s Cloverfield and 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, thrived on pre-release mystery, this was starting to feel less like calculated secrecy and more like a panicked flight. But with one brief, mildly cryptic ad, Netflix transformed an incipient lead balloon into a golden opportunity, a movie that no one was much excited about seeing into one they had to see the second the game was over.
The Cloverfield Paradox was worth the wait, but only if you started the clock in the first quarter. A few hours’ head start turns out to be the perfect amount of anticipation: just enough to get over the initial shock of its abrupt release, but not so long that you might start to wonder how a much-anticipated theatrical release ended up on a streaming service with virtually no advance warning.
From the beginning, the movie, which was directed by 34-year-old Julius Onah, has the earmarks of massive retooling. In the tacked-on opening scene, Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Hamilton and her husband (Roger Davies) baldly outline the film’s premise while waiting in a snaking, 1970s-style line for gas. Next, a bizarre opening-credits sequence fast-forwards through nearly two years on the space station where Hamilton and her crew are experimenting with a particle accelerator in an attempt to solve the energy crisis that has brought humanity to the brink of collapse. Then a figure comes on a TV screen and talks about “the Cloverfield paradox,” which appears to have nothing to do with either Cloverfield or paradoxes but does involve the danger of the space station’s technology opening up dimensional rifts and releasing “monsters, demons, beasts from the sea.” (I am fairly sure no one involved with The Cloverfield Paradox knows what the word paradox means.)
Needless to say, the particle accelerator is used, and needless to say, things go awry. But the precise nature of that awry-ness varies between scenes, and oftentimes within them. There’s some business about alternate dimensions (or, more precisely, alternate universes), some Alien-style body horror, bits of metal and flesh that take on lives of their own, even the occasional hint of time travel.
The Cloverfield Paradox’s script is only credited to two people, Oren Uziel and Doug Jung, but it feels as if it was written by several dozen, or by pulling slips of paper out of a bowl at random. That goes for the cast as well, which includes David Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl, Chris O’Dowd, Zhang Ziyi, Aksel Hennie, John Ortiz, and Elizabeth Debicki—fine actors all, but putting them all in the same movie is the equivalent of a cooking-show challenge to make an entrée with parsley and motor oil. Great(ish) ideas and terrible ones sit cheek by jowl, original notions and blatant thievery corralled together with no discernible logic. It’s a horror movie one moment, a comedy the next, as if Netflix were streaming several different titles at once.
The genius of Netflix’s no-look release plan is that none of this matters much. The movie’s abrupt appearance generated a flash of intense excitement, but not the kind of prolonged anticipation that most often leads to disappointment: The only thing you expected of The Cloverfield Paradox was that it would be on your computer when the last whistle blew, and there it was. That it’s a low-level genre rehash that would have absolutely cratered had it been released in movie theaters as planned was entirely beside the point. Although it wasn’t conceived as a Netflix release, it somehow feels like the logical endpoint of the service’s approach to content generation: a movie as easily categorized as it is forgotten, one whose primary asset is that its (reworked) title will show up high in search rankings. Its plot would have been no less coherent had it been generated by algorithms rather than simply rejiggered to please them. The eventual tie-in to the Cloverfield universe is staggeringly cynical, but there’s something admirable in its brazenness, and the movie ends so abruptly it’s as if it were designed to be followed by the inevitable “Play Next” click.
Picking up a studio’s rejects might not be the best way to burnish Netflix’s brand. (The real winner here may be Paramount, who offloaded an almost-certain flop.) But Netflix didn’t just polish this turd: They served it up on a silver platter, and had everyone rushing to dig in. There’s a certain thrill in getting there first, but when you’re done, you’re still left with a pile of crap.