It looked like any old Super Bowl movie trailer, just another 30-second spot dropping during one of the single most watched sports events of the year. The logo for J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot production company pops up, old footage of Matt Reeves’ 2008 hit Cloverfield begins playing and then we see a man staring out of a window. “10 years ago, some thing arrives,” sayeth a disclaimer. Now that same unknown gent is peering into the mist, as a loud, dull roar echoing nearby. “Find out why.” A quick montage of cosmic debris and chaos ensues. “Whatever you’re doing,” a woman says, looking directly into the camera, “stop.” Hey, that’s Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the English actress from the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero.” And holy shit, is that, like, a severed arm crawling along a floor? And some sort of international space crew – dotted with a few familiar famous faces – is staring at it?
Then comes the big one-two punch: You have just watched a brief teaser for The Cloverfield Paradox, the long-rumored, multi-titled, much release-delayed, somewhat reputation-sullied third film of the Cloververse, or whatever Film Twitter has decided it would like to call the series’ shared world this week. And rather than having to wait weeks or even months to see it in a theater, you can watch it on Netflix … tonight. Hold up, tonight? Like tonight tonight?
For folks sitting at home Sunday night, the idea that Paramount and Netflix may have given the film industry its first genuine you’ve-just-been-Beyoncé-ed victory felt, in its own weird way, like witnessing history in the making. A major studio just partnered with a major TV streaming service to drop a $40 million tentpole blockbuster (that’s the alleged budget, at least) into our laps without so much as a “coming soon” viral teaser. And for those of us who spent either the wee small hours of Monday morning or some quality time Monday afternoon actually watching the thing, the end result was surprisingly familiar: Oh, this is not very good. At all. The stealth marketing campaign was a brilliant move. The movie is beyond awful. This is what being bamboozled feels like.
Should you be wondering: The year is 2028, our planet’s natural resources are running perilously low and a space station is trying to get a particle accelerator going in the name of “unlimited energy.” Back home, some folks are skeptical: What exactly are these saviors of our species doing up there? Will this device keep us afloat, or will it “risk opening the membrane of space-time … smashing together multiple dimensions [and] shattering reality!” The answer is Option No. 2, at which point our big blue marble disappears – “we didn’t destroy the earth, we just lost it”; bless you, Chris O’Dowd, your line readings almost salvage this wreck – and a crew member from an alternate timeline (Elizabeth Debicki) shows up tangled in the ship’s wiring. We’ll cut to the chase: a severed arm writes an expository note, worms explode Alien-style from a human body, someone both drowns and freezes at the same time, there are some 3D-printed guns and some fights, the requisite getting-sucked-into-deep space moment and a literal chase is abruptly cut to numerous times.
Meanwhile, back on Missing Earth, the man who was staring out the window in the trailer (Roger Davies), and is also the husband of Mbatha-Raw’s worried astronaut, is roaming around a wrecked city in his car. He’s a doctor, but he keeps getting texts not to go to the hospital. There are explosions. A large shadow appears and then there’s that mystifying roar. A child is found, and saved, and only kinda sorta mentioned again. Then, at the very end of all this, right before the credits, a giant monster appears, some sort of variation on the original Cloverfield kaiju. See? It really is all connected. Cinema!
Ballyhoo has been embedded in this series since day one, right after producer J.J. Abrams dropped an odd trailer in July of 2007 that looked like home-movie footage of a surprise party and ended with the Statue of Liberty’s decapitated head skidding to a stop in New York’s East Village. The catch: No title or release date is ever mentioned. We know this is a film, because info about the executive producers and screenwriter and director show up. But otherwise, it’s all one huge, tantalizing mystery box, teasing you that some J.J.-has-a-secret-project was on the horizon. When Cloverfield hit theaters the following January, you might mistake it for a feature-length elevator pitch – Godzilla meets The Blair Witch Project – albeit one that, importantly, delivered. It may or may not have become the hit that it was with a regular roll-out, but it’d be disingenuous to think that the lack of info didn’t double as lo-fi, buzzworthy fanfare. A sequel was inevitable.
Fast forward to 2014, when it’s announced that Mary Elisabeth Winstead and John Goodman are starring in a movie being made under the Bad Robot banner, titled The Cellar. A spec script that attracted some industry heat, it concerned a young woman held captive in a bunker, supposedly to keep her safe from “the terrors that await outside.” It was filmed under the (code) name Valencia; by the time a trailer dropped, all board games and sandwich-making and the occasional escape attempt, it went by the handle 10 Cloverfield Lane. Voila! A typical sci-fi–inflected thriller becomes a last-minute addition into what’s suddenly become a franchise. (Even the cast did not know this was a smaller part of a shared-world experience until several hours before that first trailer dropped.) Whether or not the movie warranted being retconned into a series was beside the point. Welcome to the Cloverfield family, where your brand identity just went from zero to “fans, start your hype engines.”
People who’d been following the progress of a third movie, sometimes referred to as God Particle or simply Untitled Cloverfield Project, might have sensed something was up when Paramount kept playing release-date musical chairs with it, moving it from February 2017 to October 2017, then February 2nd, 2018 … then April 20th, 2018. And even these eagle-eyed watchers might have breezed past The Hollywood Reporter story in mid-January that hinted at Netflix being in talks to acquire the property, rumored to be in even rougher shape than previously imagined. At which point, the service thought: We can get this for a song. How do you save an unintentional suckfest? You turn it into a surprise event. That unveiling during the Super Bowl, part callback and part cryptic little sneak peek, is the sort of marketing coup that deserves an eternal slow-clap.
That’s one way of looking at it, of course. Another way is that they’ve simply found a cutting-edge way to pull the oldest trick in the promotional book. When Ms. Knowles pioneered the surprise-album drop, she relied on old-school codes of omerta and a new technological infrastructure that suddenly allowed you to go from studio to iTunes in a click. If it’s not the new norm, it was certainly a bold new business model, one applicable to the right combination of name recognition and supply/demand economics. Thanks to Netflix, which pays lip service to the theatrical-release model even as it seems hellbent on cutting it off at the knees, the film industry may now have its equivalent infrastructure for such moves as well. As an experiment in attracting attention, cost-benefit economics and dodging a flop-film bullet, this is a huge win.
For people who care about the quality of movies, including big blockbuster ones, and who will never get that 102 minutes back, however, this is not being Beyoncé-ed. It’s the art of being P.T. Barnum-ed. At which point we can only look straight into the camera, fix the service with our best fretting Gugu Mbatha-Raw look, and solemnly intone:
“Whatever you’re doing, Netflix: Stop.“
Watch Netflix’s ‘Cloverfield Paradox’ 30-second spot from Sunday’s Super Bowl.