Stream This Not That: 10 Cloverfield Lane vs The Cloverfield Paradox

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10 Cloverfield Lane is streaming on Hulu and Amazon Prime.

The Cloverfield Paradox is streaming on Netflix.

You’ve only got two hours to watch something (let’s assume you’re a grown-up with stuff in the morning), so which is it gonna be?

It’s time for a round of Stream This Not That

Is the Cloverfield franchise really a thing? J.J. Abrams has tried his damndest to make it one, but the three movies we have so far: 2008’s Cloverfield, 2016’s Cloverfield Lane and this year’s The Cloverfield Paradox are hardly a cohesive trilogy. They’re more like awkward long-distance relatives at a family reunion, standing around the cheese plate and trying to find some common ground other than their late, great-aunt Mildred. Except in the “Cloververse”, great-aunt Mildred is an alien/monster invasion event that possibly ends all life on Earth.

But for now let’s just bypass all the viral marketing and dubious tie-ins. Since the stories aren’t closely connected, it shouldn’t affect your decision on which to watch – in other words, you don’t have to watch them in order for the story to make sense or to avoid spoiling anything. Both of these movies promise some things: cool scifi concepts, a decent amount action and thrills, plus a small group of talented actors led by a talented, kick-ass heroine. The question is, do they both deliver?

For almost its entire run time, 10 Cloverfield Lane does. When I first saw it in theaters, I remember being impressed how a movie that mostly takes place in a cramped underground bunker with three central characters had so many twists and turns. The film uses that claustrophobia to its advantage, narrowing its focus on each horrific possible outcome till soon, you start to feel like you’re the one trapped underground with no cellphone reception and only a few 90s teen magazines for reading material. Director Dan Trachtenberg keeps the pacing of the movie brisk and explains little, so to start, all we know is that Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle is a woman on the run from a bad relationship who wakes up after a disorienting car crash in an even tighter spot:

Ripley, Sarah Conner, Furiosa – add Michelle to this list of badass heroines who won’t take failure or dismissal as an answer. We only get a few hints at her potential fortitude and toughness in those opening scenes that show her packing her shit and leaving behind an engagement ring – she’s savvy enough to bring along a good bottle of whiskey and strong enough not to give in to her ex’s pleading to come back and talk it out. But when she wakes up chained to the wall in what is clearly some psycho’s basement, injured and stripped down to her undies, well, it’s a lot. We’re just as nervous for the fate that could be in store for her as she is, but then, before you can say “torture porn”, she’s building tools and starting fires, the kind of daring lead character that makes things happen rather than waiting around for them to.

Winstead is one of my favorite under-appreciated actresses, and this role is a showcase for the kind of wily intelligence she can do so well. We see her eyes watching everything, taking in her surroundings and calculating her next move, and it’s all we can do to keep up. John Goodman’s Howard does his best to – he’s the psycho who’s devoted his life to building and stocking this underground shelter, perfect for keeping most people out and a few locked snugly inside. Howard’s paranoia has its reasons, which range from wild conspiracy theories to those based on more….tangible evidence, and Goodman’s clearly having a ball playing a creep whose exact degree of maliciousness is hard to gauge. But whether he and his sidekick, Emmett (a sweet John Gallagher Jr), are to be trusted or even believed, isn’t made clear by the first half of the movie. As the cryptic atmosphere builds and the dangers outside their little abode as well as within its walls become more immediate, 10 Cloverfield Lane barrels towards heat-pounding conclusion….which comes, and then there’s 15 more minutes of movie to ties it back to the larger franchise. Ah well, so close to perfection, we’ll just blame J.J. for bungling the ending with his dreams of the Clover-verse.

Whoever’s to blame for The Cloverfield Paradox has much more to be sorry for. The premise sounds promising – there are some scientists, trapped in space, with an alien thing running around trying to kill them. Ok, so we’ve been there and done that a few times, but you could say the same about the “trapped in an underground bunker” storyline. What was needed here was another new spin, hopefully led by another powerful female lead in Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Hamilton. It’s a great name, and Mbatha-Raw is a fantastic actress who we know has the chops to give us a fresh and exciting take on scifi, as she demonstrated in Black Mirror’s best episode to date, “San Junipero.” So who is Hamilton? From the beginning we get told that, yes, she’s a scientist and an astronaut, but also you guys, she’s a mom and wife, so you know, a woman.

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The details of her back story become just one tedious element that weighs the movie down as it tries to move forward. In Cloverfield Lane, all we know is that Michelle wants to live – her motivation is survival, pure and simple – there are no moppets to rescue or hospitals in crises. Cloverfield Paradox gives us a team of international scientists working from space to save an entire planet of endangered people, so the stakes are significantly higher, and yet the movie has much less urgency than its predecessor. That’s partly because there are so many moving parts here to keep up with, and some of them work much better than others.

What works is the building horror around the crew realizing that it’s not just that something’s very wrong with their trusty ship, but that something very wrong has taken it over and is picking them off one by one as its powers grow. That ship has been their home as they’ve tried to solve a particle accelerator puzzle for the past few years and several advancing crises on Earth mean they need to get that thing working asap and there’s no going home till they do. Various space horror scenarios play out with lots of gasps, a few laughs and plenty of homage to the “trapped in space” pop culture greats that came before. Our crew is an ok enough group – mostly bland, with a few of them stuck in weirdly retro stereotypes (hello, surly and arrogant Russian gentleman), and Chris O’Dowd making the most of an impression as the comic relief. Again, Mbatha-Raw is good and you get the feeling she could do so much, but the script just doesn’t give her a chance to. Her connection to Jepsen, a stranger who makes a startling entrance onboard, seems like it could be an interesting development, but it quickly gets lost in the shuffle as a hundred other things happen, none of which really ends up being that important.

Some interesting ideas about multiple dimensions get brought in and a disembodied limb gets to act heroically (you don’t see that every day), but basically it’s just a lot of science-y talk topped off by a “humanity is worth saving” speech before we get to a final five minutes to tie everything back to the franchise. I wanted this movie to be a scary, rollicking addition to the space odyssey catalogue, but it ended up being wholly unremarkable (quick and dirty tip: for a similar plot, but a helluva lot more fun, watch Life instead). Somehow, The Cloverfied Paradox manages to offset the good will 10 Cloverfield Lane earned this series, so maybe next time someone comes to J.J. Abrams with an idea for a new science fiction movie, they can convince him he doesn’t have to slap the word “Cloverfield” in the title or giant alien-monsters into the last five minutes of the plot.

So Stream This10 Cloverfield Lane Not That: The Cloverfield Paradox and till next time, keep honing those alien invasion skills!

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