Nothing is simultaneously as exciting and disappointing as J.J. Abrams‘ Cloverield franchise. In a sea of film franchises, this is one of the good ones… well, sort of. The Cloverfield banner acts more like The Twilight Zone than anything, a name which audiences can look to and expect a certain brand of Sci-fi Horror storytelling, while each film acts as its own separate story in a universe subtly (barring the end of The Cloverfield Paradox) connected by Easter eggs and hallmark visuals. Sounds cool right? Well, mostly. It’s a series that is advertised as a director and writer friendly space, when really, Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot, picks up scripts for low budget independent films and produces them with the rule that they must incorporate specific Cloverfield-isms into their story. There are 3 films in the franchise, each proving varying degrees of success for Abrams’ sci-fi horror experiment, yet the series seems to be at a stand still at the moment. Regardless of the questionable guidelines set by Bad Robot, it’s a fun series that we can only hope will rear its ugly head again sooner rather than later.
JJ Abrams’ ‘Cloverfield’ Mystery Boxes
The primary driving force behind the Cloverfield films is JJ Abrams’ “mystery box” storytelling method. This is a way of telling stories by means of having a mystery drive the plot, one that provides infinite possibilities and potential for the story to go any direction. Each of the 3 Cloverfield films use the mystery box technique by keeping audiences in the dark as to what is really going on for the large majority of their runtime. This makes for a pretty fun experience as an audience member. No one can deny that Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane, and The Cloverfield Paradox are all individually interesting movies on paper, movies that should be totally engaging all the way through based on the mysteries at their core. It’s the voices behind these movies and their connections to the greater Cloverfield universe that sets them apart in quality and have aged them either like wine or milk.
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Where the Cloverfield Franchise All Began
The movie that started it all, 2008’s Cloverfield, has a bit of a get out of jail free card in this situation. Matt Reeves‘ film set the table for everyone’s expectations with this series. It’s a thrilling, modern take on classic monster movies like Godzilla and those of the 50s atomic age told through a found footage lens. Of the three films, this original take might be the most terrifying. Reeves’ Cloverfield portrays a gargantuan nightmare, told at the ground level. Even though the audience is only provided select glimpses of the destructive giant monster, the main threat of the film is never a mystery. It’s the unclear origin of the monster, the small creatures dropping off of it, and the government’s involvement that make the film a mysterious nightmare. Reeves’ film is easily the bleakest of the series as well. Throughout the film’s entire runtime, it seems as though there’s nothing that can save the victims caught in the monster’s path. It’s a depressing, crushing film, one that seemed to set an obvious path forward for the series.
Cloverfield’s Unexpected Franchise Pivot
In the years that have followed the original Cloverfield, there’s been word that audiences would receive more giant monster madness in a direct followup to the original film. What nobody saw coming was the film that eventually followed, the claustrophobic thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane. Unlike the original Cloverfield, its followup favored a small scale of paranoia over another massive sci-fi horror story. This second film, directed by Prey’s Dan Trachtenberg, began the Cloverfield tradition of publicly announcing a series entry shortly before release, in this case 2 months before release. The film follows Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a woman who gets in a car wreck and is either rescued or kidnapped, taken away to the basement of a doomsday prepper-like figure, Howard (John Goodman), just before a disaster of sorts takes place in a nearby city. The film’s mystery box keeps audiences wondering if Howard is a liar or if the outside truly is dangerous, leaving Michelle’s life threatened whether she leaves or stays in the basement. While Cloverfield might be the scariest and most exciting of the series, 10 just might be the best film of the bunch. Trachtenberg ratchets up the tension without leaning on monsters and aliens, focusing on the ways dangerous individuals might react to such forces being right outside their front door instead.
10 Cloverfield Lane wasn’t exactly the sequel audiences had been asking for, yet it proved to be fix that they didn’t know they needed. Stories began to come out about the film’s road to the big screen, detailing a spec-script titled The Cellar that struggled to get off the ground, eventually finding a home at Bad Robot. It didn’t take long for Abrams and co. to finagle little Cloverfield-isms into the film, with additions being primarily kept for the very end of the film. While 10 is a mostly great movie, it ends on an overblown, VFX heavy note that almost retroactively pulls all the wind out of the sails of the film’s first 80-minutes. With the film originally being written with the intention of being filmed on an ultra low budget, it’s pretty clear that the eventual ending was tacked on after Bad Robot purchased the original script. This ending would be a sign of things to come for the following film, The Cloverfield Paradox.
The Cloverfield Franchise Took a Turn for the Worse
It’s sad to say that the most exciting aspect of 2018’s The Cloverfield Paradox is still its release strategy. The film was first announced via a Superbowl trailer with the promise that it would be released to Netflix right after the game. Paradox set the world on fire with its announcement… and put them to sleep with its story. Like 10, this film was originally a script titled God Particle. This script promised a much different story than what Julius Onah‘s final film ended up delivering – a messy, thrill-less sci-fi mystery more focused on tying together and expanding aspects of the Cloverfield universe than it is in telling its own story. The film follows a team of astronauts trying to solve Earth’s energy crisis, making the planet disappear in the process. There is hardly any focus placed on the lead character Ava’s (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the best part of the film) personal crisis, preferring rather to focus on the multiversal effect put on the Cloverfield universe. It’s a slog of a film – one with an interesting log line, but a slog nonetheless.
Paradox was panned by critics upon release and seemed to put a sour taste in everybody’s mouth for the Cloverfield franchise. Bad Robot had a 4th Cloverfield adjacent film slated for just a few months after its 3rd entry, arriving in October 2018, yet the film was ultimately stripped of its franchise elements and released as a standalone film titled Overlord, a criminally underrated action-horror banger. Overlord ended up a box-office disappointment, but proved to be ridiculously entertaining to all that saw it. Would it have been seen by more, had it bared the Cloverfield name? Maybe, but without it, Overlord was freed of any and all franchise trappings. Even A Quiet Place was originally developed as an entry in the Cloverfield universe, yet producers abandoned this approach some time early in the project’s development so that the film could operate fully in its own lane. Another film whose quality likely would have been soured if it had been tampered with.
The Cloverfield franchise is a strange Frankenstein monster of a series of movies. Does it want to circle back around to its giant monster origins? Does it want to stay a loosely connected series of films? Nobody seems to know, not even JJ or anyone else making these movies! It’s a series that seemed to be on a streak of frequently releasing loosely connected Sci-fi Horror films that allowed independent filmmakers to get their projects off the ground, yet they fumble every time the series’ trademarks are shoehorned into the individual films. Hopefully, if the Cloverfield series does move forward, Bad Robot will continue to greenlight these genre soaked stories, yet they will take note from the films that escaped their grasp – Overlord and A Quiet Place. The people want these rollicking monster movies, but not every one of them needs to plant seeds for a late franchise crossover or have the same trademark monster showing up in each of them. If we’ve learned anything about these movies though, it’s that one could be around the corner, ready to release at any second. Let’s hope next time this monster of a franchise wakes up and rears its head back into the minds of audiences, its identity crisis will have been solved, ready to deliver its best entry yet.