Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
February 2018

The Cloverfield Paradox

I wonder if you wonder

On spaceship cliches, conceptual incuriosity, a severed arm gone to waste, and the least interesting Paradox ever conceived

The Cloverfield Paradox
Director: Julius Onah
Screenplay: Oren Uziel
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Daniel Brühl, David Oyelowo, Chris O'Dowd, Zhang Ziyi, Elizabeth Debicki, Roger Davies, John Ortiz and Aksel Hennie
Not rated / 1 hour, 42 minutes / 2.39:1
Available on Netflix
(out of four)

If you've frequented a Regal Cinema over the last year or so, you've probably seen one or more of the Coca-Cola-sponsored student short films that run between the trailers and the feature. The one they've been showing the last few months (although that may vary region to region) is a race-against-time spaceship thriller. Or rather, an ersatz abstraction of one. It has a guy in uniform furiously entering in codes on a futuristic-looking computer, with flashing red lights on the screen indicating some sort of danger, while the camera anxiously fidgets around and generically dramatic music hovers underneath. It is instantly clear what it's a representation of, while being so far removed that it could never, even for a split second, be mistaken for the real thing.

The Cloverfield Paradox is basically that Coke short at feature length. But while the aggressively counterfeit quality is perfectly understandable for students given 1 minute or less to make a glorified commercial, it is, needless to say, inexplicable for a substantially budgeted film produced by a major studio and distributed by the world's largest streaming platform. And yet here we are. In addition to its many other poor qualities, Paradox features several scenes that fit the above description. Crew of a ship frantically tapping away on keyboards and touchscreens. Dramatic close-ups of percentages and power levels on glossy transparent displays. Handheld camera shakily floating around. Warning! Warning! Shaking, turbulence. Overload! Overload! Generically intense music begins to ramp up. Dutch angle insert shot! Impact! Actors pretend to lose their balance and fall to the side as the camera tilts. The alarm system starts steadily blaring. Crew members yell extremely dramatic things at each other that sound vaguely technical. Like mainframe, probably. Running down a space hallway! The lights flicker, the camera keeps shaking. More frantic taps on the computer. "We've lost power! We're on a backup generator!" More yelling.

At least it's thorough. Paradox - directed by Julius Onah from Oren Uziel's screenplay - certainly doesn't scrimp on the boilerplate space-drama conventions. But that's perhaps only because those conventions are all it knows how to do with any confidence. Here is a movie with quantum-level possibility and Uwe Boll-level ambition. Whenever it finds itself on the cusp of a fascinating new direction, it doubles down on its lack of interest, defaulting back to doing the bare minimum that "dramatic thriller set on a spaceship" requires. But dammit, does it commit wholeheartedly to that bare minimum. You've gotta give it that much.

The final result resembles a commercial for a fake movie that exists inside a real one - not a parody but something that intends to give a vague impression of a plausibly real film, only it does a bad job accomplishing even that.

When it's not busy poorly imitating outer-space thrills, Paradox does everything else in its power to waste endlessly fertile subject matter - not to mention an ace cast. In the lead role, Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives far more than the character or the movie deserve, and she's surrounded by top-shelf supporting players, including David Oyelowo, John Ortiz, Daniel Brühl, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris O'Dowd and, in something of a surprise coup for an inept American genre film, ageless global superstar Zhang Ziyi.

As for the concept, let me put it like this: At one point O'Dowd's character gets his arm completely lopped off, and then that arm shows back up a few scenes later - of its own volition, crawling along the floor toward O'Dowd and the rest of the bewildered crew - and the movie somehow completely screws this up. The disembodied arm literally asks the crew for a writing instrument so it (he?) can write down an instruction. And ... that's it. That is the extent of ol' Armie's role. Show up, write down something plot-specific, then disappear for the duration. Where's Bruce Campbell when you need him?

How any filmmaker could take that great an idea - that great a visual and narrative toy - and instantly toss it aside, treating it merely as a means to a very small end, is something I will never understand. The arm is kept under glass for the remainder of the film, occasionally visible in the background. In one particularly amusing shot, the arm is tapping its fingers as chaos erupts around him - as if bored, wondering why it's not getting in on the action. Put me in, Coach. I was wondering the same thing. With that shot, it's almost as if Onah were subconsciously telling himself something. He should have listened to himself.

It's all a matter of quantum entanglement, you see. The crew in question are on board the Cloverfield Space Station, which contains an experimental particle accelerator that, if it works, could solve what has become a dire global energy shortage. Instead, it smashes two dimensions into each other and scrambles them all together. Our ship suddenly contains - stuck inside the walls, no less - a new guest (Debicki), who knows (almost) everyone by name and insists she's part of the team. The crew soon realizes they're not only far from their intended coordinates - the whole station is in a different dimension entirely, one in which director Julius Onah doesn't know what a reveal shot is.

This is material for writers and filmmakers as inquisitive as they are playful, but Onah and Uziel are neither. They simply have no appetite for any of this. That they broach multiverse logic and see only two, instead of infinite, realities proves how low their ambitions are. They see quantum entanglement as a neat idea and then ask: How do we make this as stupid and easy to digest as possible? They've pulled off a reverse Trojan horse.

The Cloverfield Paradox doesn't really want to confuse or disorient or unsettle its characters, let alone its audience. Delirious absurdity, provocative thought experiment, twisty conceptual exercise ... for all it could be, the filmmakers are firmly unwilling to follow down this particularly loopy rabbit hole. All they're able to muster with the concept is one displaced character, a single-serving severed arm, and Chekhov's 3D-printed gun. Maybe in another dimension this premise landed in the hands of someone with a little curiosity.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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