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Cloverfield and the Art of the Cinematic Universe

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  • The Cloverfield Paradox is a bad film with very good marketing. It’s well shot, decently acted, moderately scored and mixed and ultimately a boring and trite entry into the nonexistent “Cloverfield Franchise.” Cloverfield has always been sold through flashy alternative reality games and mysterious trailers but The Cloverfield Paradox is a scummy cash grab designed to take advantage of the good will of fans.

    In a vacuum, The Cloverfield Paradox is a mediocre sci-fi horror film that draws too much on films like Event Horizon to be original and not enough on films like Event Horizon to be good. With notes of Pandorum and Life, The Cloverfield Paradox manages to be a boring, bloodless affair that attempts to retcon a uniting incident into the “Cloverfield Franchise” that not only doesn’t work but also fails to create a franchise.

    It’s a bad movie. Worse, it’s a bad movie that uses world building as a marketing ploy. Sequels have always existed to profit from the successes of their predecessors. Jurassic Park exists in a vacuum until The Lost World reopens things in order to capitalize on how popular the first one was. Aliens takes a finished story and reopens old wounds despite there not really being an opening for a next chapter.

    Even in larger, more extended universes its easy to see where retroactive continuities were used to smooth out the edges. Obi-Wan telling Luke that his father was killed by Darth Vader becomes a figure of speech. Sherlock having a secret sister behind the person behind the schemes. James Bond having a secret step-brother behind the organization behind the organization he was trailing. Later entries taking objects or lines and giving them new meaning with new truths isn’t new or novel.

    But each of these entries took the time and did work to build their universes. The Jurassic Park films recycle characters and reference earlier events. The Harry Potter series takes advantage of breadcrumbs left in the earlier books. Even Obi-Wan wasn’t really lying, it’s just true from a certain point of view.

    The “Cloverfield Franchise” does none of this. The monster from the first movie does not return in the second, traded away in favor of aliens. The third film takes place 10 years after the first and only references the first by way of a last second moment of improbable circumstance. Were it not for the name, its easy to see these films for what they are, three separate movies made completely independently and without regard for continuity.

    In fact, The Cloverfield Paradox (originally God Particle) and 10 Cloverfield Lane (The Cellar) feel less like the two extant legs of an anthology and more like older B-movies attempting to rise to prominence riding the coattails of a much more famous film, in the vein of Troll 2.

    In the case of 10 Cloverfield Lane, the deceit is less egregious because it helped finance and screen a film that was struggling and the end result justified it. In the case of The Cloverfield Paradox, the situation is much grimmer. Either a film was struggling and JJ Abrams saw an opportunity to absorb another film into his anthology series and force reshoots in order to loosely tie it in and the film ended up not being good or a not very good film was bought up and had reshoots in order to use the marketing slipstream of Cloverfield to find a release.

    World building takes time and it’s not easy. It’s why efforts like Batman v Superman feel bloated, they try to do too much too quickly. It’s why it was so funny the Dark Universe announced with The Mummy was clearly destined to fail. It’s why the MCU spent four years and five films building up to The Avengers.

    “The Cloverfield Franchise” is all about backdoor continuity. It’s a “franchise” built on shoehorning films into a universe that isn’t defined. None of the films answer any questions because as separate films that weren’t meant to exist in a continuity together they don’t even know they’re supposed to be in conversation with one another. It’s why fans of the films have sort of engineered a scenario where all three films take place in separate universes where time and space are falling apart. It’s the best theory because the only way to contain the incoherence and not feel duped is to embrace it. To admit that JJ Abrams has not clothes (or vision) is to admit we were all duped. The only way not to look stupid is to play along.

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