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'The Cloverfield Paradox' gets confused and lost in space

The movie's straight-to-Netflix debut may have been the right move.

Scott Garfield/Netflix

"The Cloverfield Paradox" may be the biggest movie surprise of 2018 -- and that feat has nothing to do with the film's content. 

After being delayed several times under the title "God Particle," Netflix dropped a short trailer during the Super Bowl, along with the surprise that the film was ready and would premiere exclusively on the service immediately after the game. It doesn't get any more splashy than that. (Considering just a few weeks ago no outlet was even sure Netflix was interested, that's quite a coup.) But after immediately streaming the new space-themed franchise entry from director Julius Onah, we definitely see why having this movie skip theaters completely may have worked in its favor.

Like "10 Cloverfield Lane" in 2016 and "Cloverfield" almost a decade ago, "Paradox" is mostly a standalone story. It follows a group of astronauts desperately trying to create a new energy source for an Earth that has depleted all of its resources. But after their experiment goes awry, the astronauts find that the Earth has disappeared. Or rather, *their* Earth has disappeared.

What follows is a pretty predictable adventure in space: The astronauts need to find out where they are and where the heck the Earth went, all while avoiding being systematically killed off by the unknown (but fairly predictable) threats.

Nothing about this plot is new, though you can argue tried-and-true is the Cloverfield way. The original tackled gigantic monster horrors with found footage, and psychological horror "Lane" relied on tight action and great characters to ramp up the thrills. Like "Lane", "Paradox" confines the characters in a tight environment amid disaster, trading in John Goodman's bunker for the Shepherd space station. And a la "Alien" (or really most "trapped in space" movies), the characters are constantly put in danger inside and outside their ship.

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Something is very wrong back on Earth too during "Paradox."

Netflix

A paradox upon itself

Unfortunately, the audience is often left in the dark about what exactly the external/internal threats are, and very rarely are the crazy occurrences explained. For instance, two characters have individually horrific experiences involving the walls of their spaceship, and the closest we get to an explanation is a short TV interview with crazy-sounding Donal Logue at the start of the film. His "Chicken Little"-esque warning of the paradox says that the very experiment these astronauts are trying to use to save Earth will end up ripping open space and time, maybe even dropping demons and monsters into the past, present and future.

Netflix touts "Paradox" as the connecting thread of the franchise, the one which will explain just how and why the disasters are connected; but by the end, the film's reasoning is still so vague that thinking about how it connects everything will give you a headache (and you'll probably just end up with more questions).

Questions like: Are there multiple timelines, one where the fabric of space-time is not ripped apart and another that has produced every single Cloverfield film? Is this film a prequel or a sequel to the others?

Did the monster from the first film come out of the sea like other pieces of canon insinuate? Or did it come from space? Are we even in the same timeline as Ava's husband? Are we returning to the "right" Earth? Without a timeline, future Cloverfield installments should stick to simpler stories and aim to be spiritual successors like "Lane."

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Gugu Mbatha-Raw's performance is a highlight of "The Cloverfield Paradox."

Scott Garfield/Netflix

The film focuses on Ava Hamilton, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who you may remember from the gorgeous "San Junipero" episode of "Black Mirror"). Mbatha-Raw delivers an emotionally raw performance, juggling both the ship's struggle and how it connects with her attempts to reunite with her husband Michael (Roger Davies), whom she left on Earth following the death of their two children. She gains strength from videos she keeps of her family, and that relatable connection powers her through the difficult events of the film.

Michael, despite only having a brief amount of screen time with Ava at the start of the movie, similarly draws on his connection to his wife in order to power through what's happening on Earth. It climaxes with a gasp-worthy ending to the movie (well, maybe just a small one). Largely because Ava's relationship with Michael, and her guilt over losing her children, is never quite pinned down, it's hard to really and truly care about whether the Hamiltons find their way back to each other. 

This Cloverfield entry is the first to stray from the smaller storytelling of the first two entries, and it's obvious in the ensemble. Michael and Ava are the only characters given meaningful development. The rest come off more like a caricature of a space horror film: You have the engineering guy that needs to take on new responsibilities throughout the disaster, you have the guy that accuses another character of being a traitor and there's a person who dies after creatures burst out of him. Oh, and a severed hand that gains sentience is given a pen (not kidding).

Confused yet? Yeah, us too. For all the hype of "Paradox," there just wasn't much substance.

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The Shepherd ship looks great in the Cloverfield franchise's first stab at space horror.

Scott Garfield/Netflix

What "Paradox" does do right, however, are its special effects and its death scenes (well, that and casting Chris O'Dowd as the wise-cracking engineer and then giving him "all" three of the funny lines). It has some brutal kills and with so many of the characters being unlikeable, the gruesome ends some meet are more in line with "Final Destination" than previous Cloverfield films.

The Shepherd station is futuristic without being too removed from reality (with perhaps more gravity than one would expect). The ship is outfitted with windows that become video screens, 3D printers that can build weapons or make some truly horrible bagels. And for the franchise's first stab at space, the visuals of the disappearing Earth and damage sustained to the space station were haunting.

Despite its flaws, "The Cloverfield Paradox" does make for a fun space horror film, especially since you've likely already paid for Netflix this month. Had the film been released in conventional theaters though, it would have taken a beating during a harsher ride past critics and with paying audiences.

If this is your first ride with the franchise, it may be better to start with "10 Cloverfield Lane," which in the US is available to stream on both Amazon Prime and Hulu, or even take a gander at the original "Cloverfield."

But if you enjoyed the previous two Cloverfield films, giving this one a stream is certainly harmless enough -- provided you go in with low expectations. This is not the stylistic entry of the original, or the more personal story of the second. It's a crazy, outlandish space (almost) opera that attempts to answer lingering Cloverfield canon questions but ends up just asking more.

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