J.J. Abrams, more than any of his directing or producing credits, may be best known for loving what he calls “mystery boxes.” The setup of many of the shows and films he’s made under the Bad Robot Productions banner, from ABC's Lost and Alias to Super 8, rely as heavily on audiences being entranced by the questions raised by deliberately, maddeningly vague trailers as on the actual stories and their resolutions. Sunday night may have featured the most surprising mystery-box reveal of all: the latest film in the Cloverfield franchise was unveiled during a Super Bowl ad, which revealed that people could go watch the whole film on Netflix as soon as the game ended.
That surprise film, The Cloverfield Paradox, was originally called God Particle; most importantly, up until only a few weeks ago, it was going to be released theatrically by Paramount Pictures, just as Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane were. For various reasons, including rumored troubles with the film, God Particle kept getting pushed back; most recently, it had been slated to be released in theaters this past Friday, before being delayed to April 20. Soon after, sources told The Hollywood Reporter that Netflix would step in to distribute the film; it only became more evident Sunday after tweets from, among others, filmmaker Ava DuVernay that God Particle would officially become part of the Cloverfield franchise, as well as becoming one of the biggest experiments in Netflix’s history. The streaming giant has released films of its own, as well as films it has acquired from other studios. But to release a big-budget science-fiction film in an established series, with an ensemble of well respected actors like David Oyelowo, Chris O’Dowd, Zhang Ziyi, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, on the same day that you first advertise it is something else entirely.
In some respects, the experiment has worked remarkably well. Super Bowl advertising is ideal even for theatrically released films with release dates months in the future. What Netflix did Sunday night was to potentially take away from NBC's broadcast of its buzzy drama This Is Us, which enjoyed a cushy post-game slot. Sure, a new episode of the family drama would get good ratings, but a new movie produced by an established filmmaker might have stolen its thunder. Of course, that’s the true power of the mystery boxes that Abrams loves, and one reason why this experiment will likely work in Netflix’s favor, even if The Cloverfield Paradox is just a sweaty, sometimes intense, but sometimes overly familiar entry in the “trapped astronauts” subgenre of sci-fi. The film is getting dismal reviews, with some industry observers noting Paramount may have been wise to unload it rather than face embarrassing box office prospects. Last month, sources told THR Paramount chairman Jim Gianopulos was spearheading a culling of the studio slate he inherited when he took over last spring (“He sat down and looked at what is theatrical, what is not in this day and age,” said one source).
For Netflix, the downside to this experiment is that it’s a one-time job only. No doubt, many more people are aware of The Cloverfield Paradox because of the flashy way in which it was unveiled. But unlike some of Netflix’s other films and TV shows, the word-of-mouth will be instant, and may not be as friendly as that of either of the other Cloverfield films; both the 2008 original and Dan Trachtenberg’s suspenseful chamber-piece from 2016 deservedly received stronger notices. Netflix does not release ratings data, but initial estimates from ComScore show that on social media at least, buzz for Cloverfield (41,000 conversations) wasn't as high as for something like Disney's Solo: A Star Wars Story (109,000 conversations) or Avengers: Infinity War (161,000), but it managed to top the first trailer for Paramount's Mission: Impossible — Fallout (31,6000 conversations).
The Cloverfield Paradox has an exceedingly talented cast; they’re arguably too talented for the material, from writers Oren Uziel and Doug Jung. Mbatha-Raw is the ostensible lead, one of a handful of astronauts on a mission to set off a particle accelerator that will generate new renewable energy for the countries of the world, which are in the throes of a seemingly unending war. As the particle accelerator inadvertently sends the ship into another dimension, one in which Earth seems to have vanished, the astronauts find themselves at the mercy of strange happenings, from disembodied limbs having minds of their own to people being wedged into the walls of the ship.
What works best about The Cloverfield Paradox is a lot of the setup, the unveiling of the mystery box. The second half of the film goes about explaining some of what’s going on to the astronauts, as well as to the husband of Mbatha-Raw’s character, who’s back on Earth and seems to be beset upon by… something. Some of the Bad Robot movies and TV shows work well even once their respective mystery boxes are opened; The Cloverfield Paradox, however, isn’t one of those cases. The more we know about the mysteries of the film, the more of a letdown it is. The movie has some strong points, primarily in Mbatha-Raw’s emotional performance, as well as dry comedy from O’Dowd.
But for all of the unexpected hoopla surrounding the reveal of The Cloverfield Paradox during the Super Bowl, watching the actual movie does invite a vague sense of “Is that all there is?” Unlike 10 Cloverfield Lane, there isn’t a single performance that stands out quite as strong as John Goodman’s did, and the resolutions to this film’s mysteries don’t quite match up to the fanfare with which the film was announced. There will, no doubt, be more of these films — there’s a rumor that we might even get one later in 2018, this one set in World War II — but Netflix’s first foray with J.J. Abrams’ studio and his mystery boxes is likely a one-and-done experiment. Of course, for Netflix, it’s probably enough of a success that enough people checked out The Cloverfield Paradox after the big game.