The Cloverfield Paradox Broke J.J. Abrams' Mystery Box


Cloverfield Has Failed At Its Plan

Whatever Cloverfield was meant to have been or evolve into, The Cloverfield Paradox presents a major stumbling block. It's bad. The movie has had a shocking reception, with the only real excitement coming from the confusingly-presented faux-connective tissue (which we've just broken down). While that provides some grounding for those eager to have Cloverfield make sense as a narrative a la most shared universes, it hurts something more unifying and powerful the franchise had: quality.

When 10 Cloverfield Lane came out, the anthology idea was so roundly accepted because Dan Trachtenberg's film was so good that even those who desperately hoped to learn the true evils of Tagruato were so satisfied otherwise it didn't matter. Even with the promise of future evolution, the fact this wasn't a standard-throughline series meant that the entire premise hinged on the promise of high quality above all else. To put even one bad movie out creates pause, and for it to be one that's explicitly become bad because of the franchise, everything twists it the other way.

Related: How The Cloverfield Paradox Sets Up Cloverfield 4

The Cloverfield Paradox and its development sends a message of prioritizing answers over quality. Now, 10 Cloverfield Lane looks suspect or needless because it didn't provide answers where its successor did, regardless of quality or relevance of said answers. It's a tempering; Cloverfield will no doubt continue and fans will follow future ARGs with anticipation, but the spark has gone.

More pragmatically, the new movie has seemingly given up the big reveal. It wasn't just a film that Netflix dumped on our TVs Super Bowl night, but the key to one of the biggest mystery boxes J.J. Abrams has ever teased us with. And that brings us to real long-term impact.

The Mystery Box Has Broken

JJ Abrams Star Wars 7

This isn't the first time the mystery box has been challenged. In fact, the method's success rate is woefully low. Time and again we've seen it stumble and do so for the same recurring reason; while the mystery presented was strong, the explicit solution provided by the film wasn't. Super 8 was just dark E.T. on a train; the villain of Star Trek Into Darkness was actually Kahn; the hyper-secretive production for Star Wars: The Force Awakens was hiding the death of a character everybody expected and a plot remix of A New Hope. None of these are bad films, but they feel disappointing due to the promise of something out of the ordinary. Even when the answer isn't the most obvious case, the reveal still struggles to live up to his build; Lost is prime mystery box (even though Abrams stepped away from active involvement after the premiere), and while the show did answer many of the questions he raised (namely the polar bear and the monster) in gonzo fashion, many felt it missed expectations with a more character-led conclusion.

The mystery box works on the premise that anything is possible, that a movie or TV show will deliver something at the very limits of imagination. And that's flawed, because this media is always under inherent restriction; crucially, while Abrams will never open the real-life box that motivated the entire theory, movies are released and live beyond that first lights-down thrill. They need to offer something more - something tangible.

Related: The Cloverfield Paradox: The Most Brutal Reviews

That's why Cloverfield became the prime example of how to do the mystery box right; not only were the original movie and 10 Cloverfield Lane dominated by constantly mysterious marketing - both viral and unconventional variance on traditional methods - but the movies they promoted maintained that sense of the exciting unknown while telling a successfully standalone adventure. There was always something deeper in the world, so just as they satisfied on a quality level, there remained an aching question. You can't get much closer to the mystery box personified than that.

But now The Cloverfield Paradox opens that box within the box, and while it may contain a trinket that links, it destroys the promise. In the wake of mystery, there's a void where anything is possible simply because there is a void; Cloverfield never had an explanation to hide, and now we know it. To pull back the curtain doesn't even reveal a man at a console, rather an IOU.


With this latest turn, it's time to question what the mystery box style of storytelling really offers. It's pitched as an all-encompassing experience that includes not just the two hours in the theater but the surrounding release, yet is entirely backward focused; the gambit is purely about getting people in that seat and thrilling as the lights go down - what Abrams describes as the best part of cinemagoing - with lesser concern for what comes out the other end.

And that just isn't enough. Anticipation can be greater than the film itself, but if that film is The Cloverfield Paradox, it's not much of an achievement.

Next: Read Out The Cloverfield Paradox Review

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