Hours before Sunday night’s Super Bowl, a quiet surge of excitement shot through the hearts of sci-fi/horror enthusiasts everywhere: A brand-new movie in the Cloverfield anthology series was rumored to be coming out on Netflix immediately after the game’s end, according to a report in Deadline.
Sure enough, a brief teaser for The Cloverfield Paradox — billed as a prequel to the 2008 shaky-cam monster movie Cloverfield — flickered onscreen during a commercial break shortly thereafter; the movie itself was available to stream just a few hours later. In a bit of brilliant, thrilling casting, this Netflix original movie stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, one of the stars of “San Junipero,” perhaps the most beloved episode of sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror. The rest of the cast — including David Oyelowo, Elizabeth Debicki, Ziyi Zhang and Chris O’Dowd — is equally as excellent.
That, unfortunately, is where the excitement ends.
Hot off the stunty, guerrilla-style marketing campaign of 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane — a spinoff of the original that was revealed and released to rave reviews just two months later — this same-day Netflix tease and release for The Cloverfield Paradox instantly felt like an even bolder, more confident leap forward. It felt like Netflix’s iconoclastic assertion about what a movie release in 2018 could look like, inspiring giddy tweets saying as much from Selma director Ava DuVernay.
But once the Eagles won and Netflix hit the big, green button labeled “GO” to unleash The Cloverfield Paradox upon the world — I assume that’s how it works in-house — it suddenly became very clear that there was potentially an ulterior motive for this surprise-release strategy.
(Editor’s note: Spoilers for The Cloverfield Paradox ahead.)
To put it simply, The Cloverfield Paradox is not a good movie. It’s a hodgepodge of familiar sci-fi/horror tropes that’s trying desperately to tie into the Cloverfield lore: A series of deadly, mysterious malfunctions aboard a space station begins picking off its inhabitants one by one. Life support systems are dwindling. That one dial thing can’t go above 25% or else everyone will die. You know the drill.
Also, the crew is experimenting with a never-ending new power source that opens an interdimensional portal, allowing skyscraper-sized demons to ravage the Earth below (or something?). At one point, O’Dowd’s character has his arm removed by a magic, angry wall. His now-sentient, detached, floppy arm later writes out a clue to help the rest of the crew get the ship going again. It’s a lot to absorb.
As of this writing, the film is floundering at 16% on Rotten Tomatoes. So right now, it’s looking like the decision to spring the flick on an unsuspecting public with just a few hours’ notice was — at least in part — a clever way to build up immediate hype while conveniently skirting any pre-release screenings for critics.
In other words, it wasn’t actually a bold way to release a new movie at all. It was more like Netflix’s version of one of Hollywood’s most infamous traditions: the January/February movie dump.
See, the big movie studios have a history of “dumping” movies they know aren’t going to draw much critical or commercial love in January and February, immediately following awards season eligibility periods and the second-wave of winter holiday blockbusters. Examples of “iconic” titles in this tradition are Kangaroo Jack, Monster Trucks and Paul Blart: Mall Cop (which somehow spanned a sequel, released in April of 2015). Oftentimes, these sorts of films aren’t screened for members of the press ahead of time, preventing critics from warning those who are on the fence.
Of course, not every movie released in the first quarter of a year are disasters: The original Cloverfield and Deadpool came out in January 2008 and February 2016, respectively.
“I think there’s fertile ground there for the right film,” Matt Atchity, then-editor-in-chief of Rotten Tomatoes told Business Insider in January 2017. “But it’s still pretty risky.”
So, by throwing a few million dollars at a single commercial during a massive televised event like the Super Bowl, Netflix was able to get a huge amount of eyes on a project with name recognition and a reputation for these kinds of stunts. Of course, if word travels far enough that The Cloverfield Paradox is a total disaster, it could be argued Netflix won’t have the trust of an audience to pull a move like this a second time. On the other hand, the risk might totally pay off — but since Netflix never releases solid viewership numbers, we probably won’t ever know for sure.
Attached to nearly any other movie, a same-day reveal and release might have foretold a surefire miss. And in fact, Netflix has a history of putting up feature-length films with little fanfare. But for the Cloverfield franchise — and for a Netflix exclusive — it seemed like a thrilling idea, at least for the few hours before we all realized O’Dowd’s floppy arm should’ve been scrawling out a different warning: The Cloverfield Paradox sucks.