Streaming on Netflix after a surprise Super Bowl Sunday teaser, “The Cloverfield Paradox” is “Lost” in space — a faint, well-acted blip on the radar of your viewing life.
It’s the third in a franchise begun a decade ago with the found-footage exercise “Cloverfield.” Efficient, streamlined and happily fatalistic, that unpretentious winner depicted a rough night in New York City as some of its more forgettable millennials coped, badly, with a largely off-screen sea monster. The series continued in 2016 with “10 Cloverfield Lane,” an effectively claustrophobic underground-bunker affair, narratively tied to the first “Cloverfield” but only barely, with used dental floss and a little masking tape.
Sunday’s Super Bowl teaser for “The Cloverfield Paradox” promised an answer to the first movie’s obliquely stated question: How did these monsters come to pass? The pre-credits sequence in director Julius Onah’s Netflix feature, written by Oren Uziel and Doug Jung, fills us in on the state of Earth in the near future. “The world’s energy resources will be fully exhausted in five years,” a newscaster intones, though he could be speaking for Netflix’s commitment to original programming if the network settles for so-so products on the order of “The Cloverfield Paradox.”
On the Cloverfield space station, an international crew of scientists, astronauts and teeth-gritters face a dilemma. Unless the insanely powerful particle accelerator succeeds in generating energy for the planet (details unimportant, and withheld), Earth will collapse into chaos, global warfare and Adam Sandler Netflix Originals.
Communications specialist Ava Hamilton, an ordinary role made improbably compelling by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, has left her man (Roger Davies), a doctor, behind to cope with gas shortages and exposition. Hamilton’s fellow crew members include a tense German (Daniel Bruhl of “The Alienist”), an instantly untrustworthy Russian (Aksel Hennie), a stalwart but dullish commander (David Oyelowo) and the wisecracking comic relief (Chris O’Dowd, who certainly helps). At one point his character loses an arm, so that the screenwriters can have a little “Evil Dead 2” fun with the disembodied appendage.
I’ll give this much more away: One of the other crew members (Elizabeth Debicki, valiantly wielding her Tilda Swinton stare of ambiguous intent) zwoops in from another dimension. Nobody else recognizes her once she’s discovered, but the audience learns straight off in “The Cloverfield Paradox” the general idea of the paradox. Via cable news interview footage with a crackpot (or IS HE?) conspiracy theorist, we’re told the particle acceleration experiment may result in “ripping open the membrane of space time, smashing together multiple dimensions and shattering reality.” Side effects, we’re further told, may include the release of “monsters, demons, beasts from the sea.”
Sadly, the movie has little time for that. It’s too busy playing mundane alternate-reality games straight out of J.J. Abrams’ “Lost.” (Abrams serves as one of the producers.) The riffing ranges far and wide. One character suffers some gastrointestinal “Alien” trouble, while the others look on helplessly. There are humanist bits and chunks of “Interstellar” and “Arrival,” though in order to set up another chapter of this loosely assembled saga of woe, “The Cloverfield Paradox” eventually, dutifully gets around to a nonhuman adversary in close-up.
Following the usual Abrams visual strategy, meanwhile, most of the actors’ close-ups in director Onah’s picture are really, really tight — upper-lip-to-eyebrow tight. In other words, they’re perfect for casual, half-committed consumption on an iPhone.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
“The Cloverfield Paradox” — 2 stars
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1:42
Streaming now on Netflix
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