Whether or not you enjoy ‘The Cloverfield Paradox,’ you have to appreciate what Bad Robot is doing with this ever-expanding universe.
On Sunday there were two massive surprises: A Super Bowl game worth watching, and the release of The Cloverfield Paradox, the third movie in the Cloverfield franchise.
The latter felt particularly brazen; the announcement came as an ad during the game, trumpeting that the movie would be released on Netflix just as soon as Super Bowl was over. Which means that — though the spot cost something like $5 million — the entire publicity push for this widely discussed franchise rested mostly on the shoulders of a single 30-second spot.
And so after the game ended, everyone who wasn’t tuning into the climactic This is Us post-Super Bowl death reveal turned to Netflix, where the powers that be had dutifully posted The Cloverfield Paradox mere minutes after the Eagles won.
The result is anywhere from a “big letdown” to “solid” to “good” to “unholy mess” depending on who you ask. But the Cloverfield franchise isn’t really interested in reviews. This is a series engineered for the age of the internet, and it’s a juggernaut.
It’s true that though the series is designed for the web and its fandoms, the movie still tries to dodge it: Since the first film came out in 2008, production of the Cloverfield films has been shrouded in mystery. The original Cloverfield dropped out of nowhere, with no big names, in the middle of January (a notorious “dumping ground” for many unpopular theatrical films). For 10 Cloverfield Lane, the second installment, J.J. Abrams (who has produced but not directed all three) didn’t even announce that the project was related to Cloverfield until it was finished, mere months before it would release in theaters. And now The Cloverfield Paradox has similarly side-stepped any pre-release hype.
For whatever else there is to say about Abrams as “the P.T. Barnum of blockbuster salesmanship” and his need to drive everything he touches with a mystery box, the Cloverfield franchise is distinctly uninterested in much pre-release discussion. At a time when film trailers and release schedules are more heavily reported on and dissected than ever before this could be seen as an odd choice, but it largely removes “hype” of the film from the narrative. By greenlighting and producing the films in secret, the series has managed to sidestep the “scoop” industry that’s grown during the same time. Sure, there’s certainly Abrams’ flair for the dramatic, but it also suppresses the number of speculative thinkpieces we have to read before there’s even a release.
And so the Cloverfield team continues to develop new ways to distribute their movies — Netflix executives have already said that the release was a “fantastic challenge and great fun to pull it off” in secret.
Instead (at least ostensibly) the release pushes us to look at the content. With both the sequels, the Cloverfield movies refreshed the conventional sequel methodology. Whereas the first one was all splash and shaky cam, the second was a nearly entirely contained thriller, almost wholly removed from the events of Cloverfield. The Cloverfield Paradox once again expands the world to see a crew aboard a space station, dealing with a malfunction from their particle accelerator experiments as the events — or, depending on who you trust, events like — Cloverfield (2008) take place.
It’s not often that a sequel steps up to take a story in a smaller direction. But on top of that, Cloverfield is doing what good sequels and franchises have to do: showing how effectively (if unevenly) a major event like that captured in Cloverfield would cleave through everyone’s lives.
What’s more, it’s doing this in exactly the way the internet hungers for. Fan culture has come with a push for not just wider worlds but richer worlds; they want to know how the plot of the movie we get affects the lives of everyone else. And so we see things like fan fiction, alternate universe, artwork, and comics spring up to fill in the holes and flesh out the universe.
Except in the Cloverfield universe, everything is being fleshed out as we go along. It goes beyond just “the hero” and puts us into a multifaceted series where there’s no singular scope of the disaster. And it does this by dressing itself up in a new genre each time: found footage, confined space thriller, space disaster—even, briefly, an alternate reality game before the first one even had a name. Everyone may be stuck in the same apocalyptic nightmare, but not everyone’s apocalypse is the same.
The set up also brilliantly leaves the ending open; these monsters — which three movies in we still know very little about — are a major problem without a simple solution. So of course none of our characters get the kill shot that would prevent another sequel. Why not just build out another vantage point to watch the world crumble — forever? 10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg has said that he expects the whole series to be like an umbrella under which the universe can be continuously reinvented.
“It sort of plays on genre and things that are really scary, but still fun, and funny, and always character-oriented,” Trachtenberg said in an interview with The Verge. “And it’s in some ways part anthology, part something a little bit bigger, but only time will tell.”
Which really becomes the true test of the internet culture: In a time when everything is “content” and all metrics are whether content titillates rather than truly resonates, why not have an ever-expanding universe that becomes something new with each iteration? As Cloverfield sheds its skin and (possibly) cannibalizes another film to become the next installment, it doesn’t really matter whether one Cloverfield movies falls prey to the internet mob or not. It’s not over until the big monster croaks.
This is not to be an indictment of the quality of The Cloverfield Paradox or its ilk. Rather it’s an endorsement of the strength of the franchise as a whole, which has elegantly overrun the internet machine. Like Stranger Things building one story from different ‘80s genres, Cloverfield builds a wider universe around (again, seemingly) a single event. By breaking out of the confines of a single genre, Cloverfield is both stronger than an individual movie critique, and driving towards exactly the kind of film series the internet delights in — which is to say bigger than the sum of its parts.