The Super Bowl this year featured an upset, with the Philadelphia Eagles defeating perennial favorites the New England Patriots. Nevertheless, the commercials were mostly vanilla and overall ratings were down nearly 8% from 2017. Arguably, the biggest bombshell came from Netflix, which dropped the first and only trailer for "The Cloverfield Paradox," a film billed as the surprise third installment in the ongoing franchise of interconnected Cloverfield films from producer J.J. Abrams. The ad itself was a little unclear on the film’s plot or the release date. It merely said the movie was “Coming Very Soon.” As it turns out, that meant “as soon as the game was over.”
Those involved with the film — plus a few high-profile friends, like director Ava DuVernay — jumped on Twitter to herald this unexpected movie release as a flash of innovative genius: No warning, no marketing, a flash event you never saw coming and then the sudden ability (for subscribers) to stream it straight to your living room.
The release was a dramatic way for Netflix to announce its acquisition, and it pulled in a lot of eyeballs. Within 48 hours, it seems like quite a few viewers have found time to sit down and see what the fuss is all about. But was it a way to change up the movie business? Was it going to make traditional production companies race faster to a new streaming-release based format, for example?
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First of all, let’s get a few details straight. If it seems highly unlikely that a studio could produce an entire movie without anyone noticing — especially one starring such rising stars as David Oyelowo ("Selma," "Queen of Katwe") and Gugu Mbatha-Raw ("Belle," "A Wrinkle In Time") — you would be right. A bit of digging proves the making of this movie was already on people’s radars, albeit under a different name: “God Particle.” It also wasn’t originally a Netflix production — the studio that first produced it was Paramount. It wasn’t even supposed to be a Cloverfield movie; the plot was retrofitted after the franchise's second installment, "10 Cloverfield Lane," was a surprise hit in 2016.
Digging a bit deeper reveals a film that struggled to make it to the big screen at all, with release dates shifting from February of 2017 to October, then to February of 2018 and finally settling on April 20, 2018, a date which was confirmed at the start of this year. Add to this the rumors that Paramount’s chairman was trying to dump the film, and a very different picture emerges, one that involves a questionable product and a Hail Mary marketing gimmick.
In other words, this is not the story of a film that will change the film industry; this is the story of a movie that everyone worried would be a dud. When a studio moves a film’s release date out of a lucrative month (April) to release it with no warning, no marketing budget and no fanfare — in the "Dump Months" of late-January/early-February, no less — the message is pretty clear. And given the circumstances, Netflix was behaving just like most any movie studio would in a similar situation.
This is not the story of a film that will change the film industry; this is the story of a movie that everyone worried would be a dud.
Netflix and Paramount were right, too. This movie is a dud. It’s an inexpensive-looking mediocre film filled with bad science fiction clichés. I counted about five different standard plots this script pulled from, including "Alien" and "Event Horizon." The story centers on Earth’s energy crisis, as a team up in space attempts to solve the problem using a giant particle accelerator. (What could go wrong?) Trippy horror sequences follow, most of which lead to the cast Ava (played by Mbatha-Raw), Kiel (Oyelowo), Mundy (Chris O’Dowd), Tam (Zhang Ziyi) and Schmidt (Daniel Brühl) being picked off one by one throughout the station. All the clichés you were expecting do in fact show up, in exactly the order you would expect. Even the clichés you weren’t expecting show up, just for good measure.
At least the original "Cloverfield," which is a found-footage version of the “monster takes Manhattan” genre, was interesting. It was made in 2008, and it did decently well at the box office, with critics praising its new twist on an old genre. "10 Cloverfield Lane" came along eight years later, a surprising, unannounced sequel that was also a good movie. John Goodman’s creepy character Howard played against the Dan Connor-type he was known for, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Michelle made a heroine fans could cheer for. The film used the expectations of the horror genre against the viewers with good results.
Like "10 Cloverfield Lane," the connection to the franchise in "The Cloverfield Paradox" doesn’t come until the very end. Unfortunately, whereas the former was not billed as a sequel and therefore had the element of surprise, "Paradox’s" entire selling point is being part of the franchise so audiences can guess the twist from the start.
There’s only so many times audiences will stand for being fooled like this before the strategy starts to backfire on Netflix.
In a revealing moment towards the end, heroine Ava’s husband, Michael (Roger Davies), down in an Earth-bound bunker, screams hysterically at Mission Control: “Tell them not to come back! Do you hear me? Tell them not to come back!” He might also be screaming at those who still have the rights to the fourth sequel (currently still at Paramount as far as we know), tentatively titles "Overlord." This franchise is not good; tell them not to come back.
On the other hand, while Netflix wasn’t trying to change any games with their release of this film, they were able to dress it up with the smallest marketing campaign they could get away with and try to squeeze some juice from a known lemon. So by that metric, at least, it is a rousing success.
There’s even an argument to be made that by selling the film off to Netflix, which could at least get away with this type of release, both companies came away winners: Paramount by removing a a terrible film from its line up, and Netflix by releasing a franchise box-office level movie.
Still, there’s only so many times audiences will stand for being fooled like this before the strategy starts to backfire on Netflix’s dreams of becoming a serious player in the blockbuster film game. As it is, the next time Netflix releases a feature-length film with little fan fare and even less marketing, viewers will most likely be highly skeptical.
Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. Regular bylines can be found at Elite Daily, WETA's TellyVisions, and Ani-Izzy.com.