Here’s what it looks like when a routine bad movie goes off its rocker.
In “The Cloverfield Paradox,” a dystopian galactic muddle that feels like it could have been the most bonkers episode of “Deep Space Nine,” a team of international scientists are traveling on a starship that looks like an elaborate spice rack. One of them, played by Chris O’Dowd, gets his arm sucked into the wall, and emerges minus the arm, which goes crawling all by itself through the ship. The appendage is then captured and placed in a glass box, where it scrawls out instructions to cut into the body of the android-blond Russian (Aksel Hennie) who died vomiting a geyser of worms. (Are you still with me?) The crew then slices open the corpse, and there, in his stomach, lies…the ship’s missing gyroscope! Like an ace of diamonds discovered in someone’s breast pocket by a magician at a kids’ birthday party.
“The Cloverfield Paradox” was originally set to play in theaters, but its studio, Paramount Pictures, sold it to Netflix, which then tried to burnish its aura by releasing it to subscribers — without warning — directly after last night’s Super Bowl. That surprise gambit now looks, in hindsight, like a frantic attempt to win eyeballs before reaction to the movie could leak out. For “The Cloverfield Paradox” is a mind-boggling mish-mosh. It squanders whatever stray crumbs were left of the “Cloverfield” mystique by banging together bits and pieces of what must be a dozen genres. The result is a desperate plunge into the abyss of shoddy sci-fi.
What, in Godzilla’s name, is there even left of the “Cloverfield” concept by now? It began in 2008 as a monster-rampages-through-the-city movie fused with the then au courant (though already fading) found-footage genre, which made an otherwise generic creature feature seem vaguely hip. Then came “10 Cloverfield Lane” (2016), a defiantly gnarly (but overpraised) concoction about people abducted and kept in a psycho bunker that had nothing, really, to do with the previous film — except for an amorphous outline about a conspiracy of alien energy (or something). At this point, the “Cloverfield” concept just means: a vaguely “monstrous” franchise from the dark side that means whatever the hell we want it to mean.
“The Cloverfield Paradox” kicks off with some routine environmental doomsday huffing and puffing, then lurches toward intimations of an apocalyptic world war fought on the ground. Once it gets onto the ship, the movie looks, for a while, like it’s going to be another who-will-be-the-next-to-die-in-space horror thriller, like the “Alien” films or “Event Horizon.” But then the earth vanishes from the starry black sky — literally, it isn’t there anymore — and one of the team, played by the officiously intense Daniel Brühl, offers a severe left turn of an explanation for what’s happening. “None of us believed it was real,” he says. “But this is the paradox: Particles interacting with each other, across two dimensions. Two distinct realities, fighting to occupy the same space, creating chaos.”
He might be laying down the definition of a Netflix premiere movie: Is it a real-deal, major-event motion picture, an authentic piece of lavishly scaled diversion designed to enthrall millions? Or is it a straight-to-home-viewing throwaway, a sketchy mirage of entertainment — the pod version of what a movie should be? Two distinct realities, fighting to occupy the same space. That’s the Netflix paradox.
In “The Cloverfield Paradox,” there’s been a rip in the space-time fabric, and the ship we’re watching exists in two parallel dimensions, raising the metaphysical question: Is it possible that characters this thinly drawn can come in two different versions of themselves? That’s the rinky-dink conundrum that plays out for the rest of the movie, with the characters chewing on fates that never meant anything to begin with.
As for the fate of mankind, it remains frustratingly vague. The ship’s mission is to test out a particle accelerator that could generate energy, but back on earth (if it still exists), the downward spiral appears to have reached a point of no return. There is even — yes — a giant monster, in one strategically placed but staggeringly arbitrary shot. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, with her lithe emotional transparency, gives the film’s one rooted performance. She plays a crew member who yearns to get back to her husband (if he’s still alive) and her two children (who we thought had died). She keeps watching a tender home movie of all of them, but by the end of “The Cloverfield Paradox” it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s not, and even harder to care.