A trainwreck of a sci-fi flick bent on extending a franchise that should have died a peaceful death almost exactly one decade ago, Julius Onah's The Cloverfield Paradox follows the lead of the far-superior 10 Cloverfield Lane in imagining a Cloverfield spinoff whose genre ingredients have little to do with the original found-footage, giant-monster flick. Dumped by Netflix in a high-profile but logistically poisoned post-Super Bowl time slot, it comes with a built-in excuse: If most viewers are snoring on the couch by the half-hour mark, maybe it's because they've spent several hours guzzling beer and eating chicken wings? A theatrical release would likely have been disastrous for this dud; with any luck, it will be forgotten amid tomorrow's hangovers.
One of the more rushed and muddled opening sequences in recent memory introduces the space station where Paradox takes place, whose crew will run a particle-accelerator experiment that may somehow produce enough free energy to fuel a troubled world. Nobody is really introduced, but Daniel Bruhl's Schmidt seems to be an important part of the interstellar team, as does Gugu Mbatha-Raw's Hamilton, the only crewmember afforded any kind of backstory. (Viewers excited to see Ziyi Zhang on this mission should adjust their expectations: There's a distracting delay between her dialogue and the subtitles translating it, further undermining what is already a pretty insignificant role.)
Early in the film, the station suffers an unexplained power surge. Soon after, the astronauts realize that Earth, usually sitting just outside their portholes, is nowhere to be seen. They've bounced through some kind of, you know, blip in the space-time continuum, landing in a new reality: Here, colleagues they've never met can be found trapped inside the station's walls, begging to be rescued from the power cables embedded in their bodies. Soon, a maintenance worker (a woefully misused Chris O'Dowd) will find himself losing an arm during a routine chore — and that arm will turn up later, moving of its own accord, even scrawling messages that seem to be sent from the universe the crew has left behind. Or from the one they're in now. Or something.
The previous Cloverfield films have similarly thrown viewers into barely-explained realities, and their entertainment value has been defined by the limits of those worlds. In 2008, we were stuck with some unlovable twentysomethings on the run from a Godzilla-sized monster. Die already, kids. In 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), a claustrophobic scenario involving John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr. held our interest even if we weren't sure it tied into the apocalyptic vision of the previous film.
In Paradox, one is mostly struck by the need to push Alien and a half-dozen similar films from our minds, in the hopes of giving a damn about the sub-par space-station action before us. Seeming to understand how underwhelming the drama is, Onah stages some of his pivotal crew debates off-camera, letting us listen to colleagues bicker while we watch, say, CG footage of the station's moving parts.
Toward the end, though, he keeps his camera trained on the very serious astronaut who announces, "This dimension is eating us alive." That should be frightening, probably. But in The Cloverfield Paradox, it's just a cue that the end, thankfully, is near.
Production companies: Bad Robot Productions, Paramount Pictures
Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Daniel Bruhl, Chris O'Dowd, Ziyi Zhang, John Ortiz
Director: Julius Onah
Screenwriters: Oren Uziel, Doug Jung
Producers: J.J. Abrams, Lindsey Weber
Executive producers: Bryan Burk, Jon Cohen, Bob Dohrmann, Drew Goddard, Tommy Harper, Matt Reeves
Director of photography: Daniel Mindel
Production designer: Doug J. Meerdink
Costume designer: Colleen Atwood
Editors: Alan Baumgarten, Matt Evans, Rebecca Valente
Composer: Bear McCreary