Quite independently of the quality of any of the films in question, the Cloverfield series-if-that's-the-word-for-it has taken one of the strangest routes imaginable to willing itself into existence. Cloverfield was always just Cloverfield, and that was it for eight years, when an unrelated in-production film titled The Cellar was mildly retooled and made into 10 Cloverfield Lane, with no significant plot affinities with the prior film. Now an unrelated screenplay by Oren Uziel titled God Particle has been revised into The Cloverfield Paradox, credited to Uziel and Doug Jung. None of these three films share genres, tones, styles, or much of anything else other than a loosely-imagined setting. So we have here what amounts to an anthology franchise in which producer J.J. Abrams looks for non-Cloverfield movies to transform into Cloverfields, to the films' financial benefit and his own.

Aye, but to the films' artistic benefit? Probably not in the case of 10 Cloverfield Lane, a film that fancied itself fueled by a paranoid ambiguity as to what's actually going on that was pretty well wiped out by having that tell-tale word in the title. I'm not sure it matters as much for The Cloverfield Paradox: I'd certainly be curious what has changed since the God Particle days, but it feels like the big problems here would still be the big problems even if you stripped out the most obvious "Cloverfielding" (of which there isn't really all that much until an ending so wildly terrible that it rounds back to become charming).

The film is that particular sort of sci-fi picture that most naturally asks to be described largely in terms of the other sci-fi pictures it resembles: in this case, the (wonderful, ever-underrated) 2007 Sunshine passes through 1997's Event Horizon on the way to becoming Alien, because of that universal law which decrees that all sci-fi/horror films eventually become Alien. Actually, it's even worse: it becomes Alien Resurrection. Another way of putting is that, according to rumor, Paramount at one point had to decide between God Particle or Life, but couldn't do both movies because they were basically identical. This has turned out to be true. In the end, poor Paramount got neither project, though I'm pretty that by selling the completed film off to Netflix, they ended up with a surer profit than if they'd tried to market it in theaters.

Anyway, The Cloverfield Paradox genuinely starts off strong - a hell of a lot stronger than Life, anyway - by giving us a frenetically-edited grab-bag of exposition which eventually deposits us onto the Space Station Cloverfield, where one particular crew member, Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has gotten fucking sick and tired of spending all this time in orbit away from her husband and kids. Two years, at the point we arrive, which is just before the crew is ready to fire up the Shepard particle accelerator, too big and dangerous to risk operating it on Earth, though if it works, it will be the miraculous cure to the energy crisis threatening human civilisation.

Even before things go screwy with the particle accelerator - no, sadly, this is not a 20-minute movie about how they fix the problem on the first try and go home - the crew of the Cloverfield has gotten twitchy. A multinational kludge, bringing along all of the tensions threatening to erupt in war back home, everybody's basically at each other's throats, and the doubts that some of them have about the project - conspiracy nuts on Earth have been talking about "the Cloverfield paradox", in which the accelerator might accidentally open a dimensional rift and let unimaginable space monsters into our reality, and at least one crew member has decided to take this seriously - aren't helping things out. Helping things out even less: the Shepard is turned on, and just like that, Earth is gone. Or something. Since "dimensional rift" has already been read into the record, it doesn't take a lot of imagination to guess the contours of what's happening.

Truth be told, the first 30, maybe even 40 minutes of The Cloverfield Paradox are pretty... good. Just pretty good. It's still a by-the-books space thriller, and it suffers more than a little bit from the belief that it has sketched out some wonderfully rich adult humans, while in fact they're basically just smudges with one personality trait apiece, and that derived largely from what accent they speak with (very nearly the same critical flaw as hobbles Life). Still, the film gets to cheat its way through that by having an unreasonably good cast: besides Mbatha-Raw (who's overdue for her big commercial breakthrough, and I am sad to suppose that this isn't going to be it), we have strong turns from Zhang Ziyi, David Oyelowo, a Norwegian actor I'm unfamiliar with named Aksel Hennie who's good with the "bug-eyed freakout" bit, and Chris O'Dowd doing his absolute best with a horrible comic relief part. We also have Daniel Brühl. And eventually, Elizabeth Debicki shows up as an anguished survivor from this dimension's ill-fated particle accelerator mission.

Getting all the pieces set on the board is, by and large, terrific: the production design by Doug J. Meerdink and the set decoration by Amanda Moss Serino aren't going to win any prizes for originality, but the film presents a sleek, busy vision of near-future tech that feels just movie-sized enough to not break the reality of it. And while there's little subtlety or insight in the film's "powder keg of international rivalries... in space!" narrative, the cast makes it work, and the incongruity of this happening in the build-up to what is clearly going to be a thriller, not a political drama, gives it a nice edge.

Once shit starts to fall apart, the film still manages to retain some interest: for one thing, it has a very unusual relationship to body horror, ranging from the thoroughly Cronenbergian (when we first see Debicki's character, it's legitimately upsetting) into the weirdly comic (O'Dowd's tense relationship with his arm, and that's all I'll say about it). It doesn't quite work: this is right about the point where the film suddenly decides that it wants to be several different movies all at once, and the tonal shifts, particularly around O'Dowd's character, become unbearable. But it's strange enough in its loopy, grab-bag approach that even here, even as the film was visibly starting to tear at the seams, I was still ready to call this the best of all Cloverfield movies.

It is, instead, the worst of all Cloverfield movies, and this is mostly because of how it starts to resolve itself. It becomes Life; or maybe it becomes like a not-particularly-great action setpiece from a TV sci-fi show better admired for its writing than its fight choreography (I initially compared it to Stargate SG-1, before concluding that I was somehow being unfair to Stargate). In short, it turns into a bunch of running and shouting and CGI blowing up, and while I salute director Julius Onah for his slow unwinding of tension in the early going, he fumbles the full-on action sequences pretty badly. Add in the mangled last five minutes, a victim of trying to tie this in directly with Cloverfield (at least 10 Cloverfield Lane didn't have to contend with that), and the whole thing is just a tremendous disappointment: a promising opening for a fun genre romp that gets worse and worse, dumber and dumber, as it goes along.

Reviews in this series
Cloverfield (Goddard, 2008)
10 Cloverfield Lane (Trachtenberg, 2016)
The Cloverfield Paradox (Onah, 2018)