The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
Although entertaining on the surface, one realizes that halfway through “The Cloverfield Paradox,” based on the screenplay by Oren Uziel, the picture is merely composed of pieces from great sci-fi horror projects that came before, from its look to major plot points. This is an issue because without an identity of its own, the problems of the messy latter half are all the more amplified. It is easier to overlook shortcomings of an ambitious work with some original elements because at least we are given something new to digest, to think about. As a result, the project is a mild disappointment despite early high points.
With several nations being on the edge of worldwide war due to a severe energy crisis, pressure is on seven researchers, each from a different country, aboard a space station to modify the settings of a particle accelerator and create a source for an infinite amount of energy for everyone on the planet to use. After two years of crushing failure, their most triumphant day also turns out to be their worst: the correct setting has been achieved but it comes with the cost of unleashing unimaginable horrors on the planet as well as within the space station.
The cast is composed of solid actors not strangers to character-driven work. Because the likes of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, and Daniel Brühl are capable of delivering subtleties behind every emotion and course of action, individually and as a unit, they have a way of grounding increasingly impossible situations into something digestible, relatable. For instance, Mbatha-Raw provides dramatic gravity to a grieving mother whose children perished in a fire. During her character’s more intimate moments, particularly when she is by herself in a room wrestling with regret and painful memories, she is careful not to rely on melodramatic techniques in order to establish a connection with the audience. Couple these performers’ strengths with an intriguing, mystery-filled first half, the picture promises an experience that will continue to fascinate and surprise.
A barrage of space station problems is one of writers’ techniques to increase tension. This approach works for a while since these scenes are propelled with high energy and urgency. However, when the film reaches quiet moments between action, it is significantly less involving. Tension flatlines rather than maintaining small peak-to-peak amplitudes that can soar at a drop of a hat. There are ways to maintain tension divorced from action, high decibels, and visual effects. This is where the screenplay comes in.
Attempts are made by introducing suspicions and strange characters with questionable motivations, but the third act is so poorly executed, so filled with clichés, that there is ultimately a lack of payoff. Yes, the final act involves scrambling for a gun. And, yes, there is a last-second would-be twist that relies on the bellowing of the score rather than thought-provoking silence. The last fifteen to twenty minutes, I think, personifies what is wrong with numerous sci-fi action pictures of today: they are strangers to elegant and subtle denouement. Must everything be so grandiose, ostentatious?
Directed by Julius Onah, “The Cloverfield Paradox” might have benefited greatly from an audience test screening or two because the bits of poor writing can be recognized easily and therefore fixed in some way, perhaps by providing twists within or from certain clichés. While the work does not aspire to become a new classic, it must be modern, relevant, and clever for its time throughout its entire duration.