The Cloverfield Paradox released with one of the most audacious marketing stunts in cinema history. However, instead of changing the game, all it did was show the flaws in J.J. Abrams‘ industry-dominating mystery box theory.
The mystery box has become the Abrams punchline, an iconic, occasionally-mocked summation of his ethos towards storytelling and the practicalities of movie releasing in general. The basic idea was popularised by the filmmaker himself during a 2007 TED talk: the anticipation and suspense of a work – the used example was a literal mystery box Abrams got as a child – is as important as the work itself. As such, nearly all of his films and TV shows made as producer, writer or director follow this logic.
And Cloverfield may be the most overt case. After all, we’ve become accustomed to the release of a new entry being as much an event as the movie itself, even as they each subvert expectations; the first film was announced with a title-less trailer drop and moved towards release under an alternate-reality-game (ARG) hidden veil secrecy, a trick 10 Cloverfield Lane extended with its unexpected franchise connection revealed two months before release. They thrived off suspense. Yet nothing could prepare us for The Cloverfield Paradox – in both a good and bad way. Its day-and-date post-Super Bowl release on Netflix was – bar some unclear rumors – a delightful shock, but quickly emerged to be hiding the worst of things: a disappointing movie.
That’s crushing by itself, especially given the headline-making method of delivery, yet all the talk of the movie’s insular problems and narrative connections has, rather ironically, distracted from the bigger picture and what this means for one of the most promising new franchises and the overriding creative ethos of its creator: the mystery box is broken.
This Page: The Cloverfield Franchise Was The Ultimate Mystery Box
J.J. Abrams Never Revealed What Cloverfield Actually Was
To understand the impact of The Cloverfield Paradox on the wider franchise and mystery box, we need to know what exactly the Cloverfield franchise is. And that’s not easy when you strip away the basic shock idea.
It started out as a simple story: a modern monster movie. We had the central found footage conceit that grounded the story in the now, with Matt Reeves going to great lengths to invoke images of 9/11 just seven years after the disaster, and the ARG presented a broken, corrupt world dominated by corporations where human interference broke Earth’s order and saw an unstoppable monster risen from the deep. That was the premise, and the notion was standalone: the end of the movie is the military destroying all of Manhattan in a last-ditch effort to stop the creature of unclear origin. The end.
The follow-up could have continued that thread, but instead saw a major, unexpected pivot. After eight years of silence, Paramount dropped a random trailer for 10 Cloverfield Lane, teasing a single-location thriller with John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr. that was somehow connected. How was it exactly? In the end, not really at all: this was an alien invasion film that bore next-to-no stylistic or plot connection beyond some recurring J.J. Easter eggs. It quickly dawned we weren’t dealing with a narrative, but an anthology: Abrams had built a banner by which he could take great sci-fi ideas (10 Cloverfield Lane was a separate script called The Cellar retroactively fitted into the Cloverfield series) and put them out to a mainstream audience.
Or was it? In an interview at the time of 10 Cloverfield Lane‘s release, Abrams said he was starting “what is in part an anthology, and in part this other thing that we’re working on“, teasing a big end-game plan. What that “other thing” was isn’t known, but it’s now clear anthology wasn’t the sum total.
And so we get to The Cloverfield Paradox – ostensibly a space-mission-gone-wrong horror – which introduces the idea of alternate dimensions and, more granularly, the concept that a pivotal event in one can lead to bleed over into others. The suggestion is that the Shepard test at the center of the movie led to one of two things: the arrival of monsters over from other dimensions into our own across space and time in a Back to the Future-sort of Grandfather Paradox; or a never-ending ripple across the multiverse where everything went to hell. We’ve concluded the former, although the specifics are so vague (which we’ll get back to) that it could go either way.
What The Cloverfield Paradox suggests, essentially, is that everything is actually connected and the result of inter-dimensional meddling; what we’ve been seeing is extra-dimensional beings plonked in various points of our past (in the case of the upcoming Cloverfield 4, going all the way back to World War II). This is immediately problematic, not only because it doesn’t really make much consistent sense, but because the vessel is so poor.
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