There was some debate as to whether Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane take place in the same universe – which isn’t really cleared up in the third entry in the eccentric franchise, though The Cloverfield Paradox itself takes place in two parallel universes and does touch base with the themes of the earlier films – with a final shot (yes, a big monster – no spoiler since the image is online) that weds it to some sort of kaijuverse in the making. I still think that the makers of Halloween III Season of the Witch had a better idea than the makers of Halloween IV The Return of Michael Myers (and all the rest of the sad parade) in that there’s a lot of mileage in a franchise consisting of thematically-related items rather than sequels which inevitably degrade into retreads … an enterprise the Tales From the Crypt films also tried, and that wound down quickly. The odd, precedent-setting circumstances of this entry’s making (in secret) and release (straight to Netflix, after a Superbowl ad) suggest a few bumps on the Cloverfield road to becoming a Saw-like fixture on the release schedules – and it maybe that the Blumhouse model of just making a lot of mid-budget, small-scale horror/thriller films which allow the odd Get Out or The Gift to surface from the depths and impress is in the end more adaptable. And this doesn’t shuck off the possibility that there’ll be a fan-service tie-up of all the continuities down the way, though that means handing on a poison narrative chalice to some unknown creative team who will have to show the ingenuity of, say, the makers of Lake Placid vs Anaconda to make sense of it all.
Scripted by Oren Uziel (22 Jump Street) and Doug Jung (Confidence) and directed by Julius Onah (The Girl is in Trouble), it’s a trouble-in-space movie along the lines of GeoStorm, Europa Report or Event Horizon – maybe even The Green Slime and Supernova, and a bunch of Doctor Who serials (I was reminded of Inferno). Only the relative lack of aliens makes it not an entry in the Alien cycle, even if one scene is deliberately staged to be reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s film (‘at least we know where the worms went’). In a chaotic, necessarily sketchy near-future, the world is about to go to war over dwindling energy resources and a multi-national crew aboard the space station Helios are tasked with getting the Shepherd – a big gadget which will supposedly produce unlimited clean energy – online. Our lead is Ava Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who has a doctor husband (Roger Davies) struggling with crises on Earth and a tragic backstory involving dead children, and the rest of the crew are pretty much from stock – stoic Yank Kiel (David Oyelowo), rimless-specs German Schmidt (Daniel Bruhl), paranoid Russian Volkov (Aksel Hennie), funny Irish engineer Mundy (Chris O’Dowd), religious hispanic Monk (John Ortiz) and non-anglophone Chinese boffin Tam (Ziyi Zhang). The latest test firing shuts the Helios into a goatee-sporting evil universe, where the world is actually at war and the sole survivor of the parallel space station Cloverfield is Jensen (Elizabeth Debicki), who’s still angry that her version of Schmidt sabotaged the mission.
There’s debate about the ethics of hopping back to save their own Earth while leaving this one to rot, complicated by the fact that Ava’s kids – or parallel Ava’s kids – are alive in this reality … but neither of the universes are detailed enough for us to care which survives. Between the chat, we get bizarre stuff – including a Beast With Five Fingers severed arm (surprisingly helpful) and some impressive CGI astro-dooms involving some sort of smart putty which goes rogue and a water-filled compartment discharged into the sub-zero vacuum of space. Some have theorised that this went to Netflix because it’s the modern equivalent of debuting on home video and the powers that be weren’t too impressed with it – but it’s about on a par with Life or, frankly, Prometheus and those went theatrical. A real plus is the not-quite-star cast of great presences who work hard to give underwritten parts some vim – my picks for standouts are Debicki as the cool, possibly evil representative of the secondary universe and O’Dowd as the scene-stealing jittery cynic who has to battle with a wall that goes very strange. Nice to see a diverse cast, and Mbatha-Raw and Oyelowo must have enjoyed not being in something achingly significant and awards-worthy for a change – though Oyelowo is particularly short-changed as the gruff, dull Captain. With micro-cameos for Donal Logue – who seems like a potential series regular – and the voices of Ken Olin, Simon Pegg and Greg Grunberg. The script has too much going on and puts too much at stake, but is also stuck with dialogue that wouldn’t be any better written on speech bubbles – it features the most frequently reused dud line in SF cinema ‘I don’t know what to believe any more.’