While semi-serialised and anthology formats have become commonplace in contemporary television, they haven’t lent themselves to film franchises to quite the same extent. One very notable exception, however, is the Cloverfield series, which now, somewhat appropriately, finds itself looking to Netflix for its third instalment after the original Cloverfield and 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane. All three of these films offer different ways of conceiving of an emergent global event – an alien invasion – for a world in which the capacity of cinema to represent global eventfulness has waned. Almost by definition, then, and somewhat paradoxically, the resonance of the series as a whole can only fully ramify with a certain degree of stylistic and narrative discontinuity between each film, placing a peculiar burden on The Cloverfield Paradox to define itself against both the digital glitch of the original film and the stately, suspenseful classicism of the second film. To that end, Julius Onah opts for a melodramatic space opera, or space soap, in which we view the events of the first two films from the perspective of the Cloverfield, a space station orbiting the earth at the moment of invasion. Unlike the first two films, this plays more like a telemovie, or at least a nexus between a telemovie and regular movie, making Netflix the perfect venue, where it manages to be as different from 10 Cloverfield Lane as 10 Cloverfield Lane was from Cloverfield before it, creating a similar sense of disorientation in the process.
Like so much space melodrama, The Cloverfield Paradox counters the eerie (albeit very different) silences of the first two films with a much more discursive and dialogue-driven register. Many of the scenes subsist entirely on descriptions of procedure and emotion, while the heavily choreographed musical cues and directives from the ship’s control deck also contribute to an aesthetic in which every feeling and plot point is heightened for extravagant effect. In particular, the film evinces a taste for baroque pronouncements about the spacetime continuum, which is ruptured by the Cloverfield’s particle collider – part of a plan to generate free, clean energy for the entire world – sending the ship and the crew into an alternate dimension in which the earth appears to have disappeared. If those spacetime aphorisms seem to invoke an older kind of science fiction, then it’s cemented with a flashback to Cold War histrionics, as it emerges that Russia and Germany are on the verge of declaring war on the United States, and each other, if a clean source of energy isn’t immediately found. On top of all that, the film is grounded in black characters – especially Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Ava Hamilton, the English communications officer on board the ship – and comprises a multi-ethnic cast. Not only does that produce the pervasive atonality that ensues when most people are speaking English as their second language, but it offsets the digitalism of the first film and the naturalism of the second film with a more disjunctive and dissonant register in which whiteness never asserts any single or dominant claim to realism.
From the outset, then, The Cloverfield Paradox is already somewhat unsettling in both its departures from and continuities with the first two films, but that’s enhanced a hundredfold when the particle collider transports the ship and crew to this other dimension. Once they’ve arrived there, they start to experience an emergent and escalating spatiotemporal displacement in which some parts of the ship turn up in other parts of the ship (with little regard for how they intersect with the crew’s bodies) and some parts of the crew’s bodies turn up in other parts of the crew’s bodies (with little regard for their position on the ship). More eerily, some parts of the ship and crew are exchanged with a different version of the ship and crew from the one that they knew, which they gradually realise is from an alternative dimension. In the process, the action gradually narrows – or expands – to this cusp between the ship and the alternative version of the ship, never quite settling in one dimension into the other, and gradually absorbing the crew into the structure of the ship as part-objects, “two distinct realities in a multiverse struggling to occupy the same space.”
Where the original film opted for digital horror and the second revived an older form of psychological suspense, The Cloverfield Paradox thus distinguishes itself with a more surreal, macabre, Grand Guignol array of mashed-up bodies, objects and dimensions. For the most part, it’s just a little too absurd to be consistently suspenseful – Chris O’Dowd works perfectly here – but the second film was so suspenseful that the third film almost needs this more extravagant approach to – again, somewhat paradoxically – continue the semi-continuous spirit of the franchise as whole. Where The Cloverfield Paradox does really match the eeriness of the first two films is in the depiction of the alien invasion event, here framed much more emphatically as an interdimensional prescience and potentiality, that’s unable to be properly visualised or conceptualised from either dimension, leaving the entire film stranded, perceptually, between the two. You might even say that it is an intermedial event, as the action momentarily reverts to both the stylised suspense of the second film and the digital glitch of the first film as the crew approach these interdimensional thresholds, only to “resolve” them into its own baroque, melodramatic aesthetic. In doing so, the film suggests that melodrama, rather than glitch, has become the preferred optic for articulating what exists beyond cinema, as even the grainiest and murkiest digital cinematography seems to have lost its power to evoke our perceptual horizons in any way, and has perhaps even become a kind of false post-cinematic consciousness, which Onah instead replaces with a melodramatically “cinematic” style that can only insist upon its own artifice, rather than purporting to transcend it as digital horror once aspired to have done.
While most of the action takes place in space, the action does cut periodically back to earth, where the alien entities that preoccupied the first two films seem to have been somehow unleashed by the particle collider, and the broader ramifications of this global event. Yet while these scenes may take place on earth, they never feel grounded either, consisting largely of night drives in which city lights, car lights and the lights of distant destruction are blurred into a mobile, shifting backdrop that isn’t all that different from the view from the Cloverfield itself. Even the most domestic scenes, revolving around Michael (Roger Davies), Ava’s husband, are suffused with this free-floating nocturnal spatiality, eventually feeling as jettisoned as the space station itself from the version of earth that we once knew. Add to that the complications that arise when the crew discover a different version of earth, and their return to our version of earth oblivious to the alien entities that have descended, and the very notion of earth feels too notional for The Cloverfield Paradox to ever quite feel like a prequel or explanation of the first two films, as much as it might extend the universe and the timeline of them both as well. That ability to expand our engagement with the post-cinematic event that it describes without ever claiming to contain the event has been the hallmark of all three films in this most original of franchises so far, and The Cloverfield Paradox sets another fascinating challenge to the fourth film, should it ever be released.