“Brennan Went to Film School” is a column that proves that horror has just as much to say about the world as your average Oscar nominee. Probably more, if we’re being honest.
WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE OPENING 20 MINUTES OF THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX AND THE GENERAL IMPLICATIONS THAT FOLLOW. READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED.
The way Netflix rolled out The Cloverfield Paradox (the third film in the extremely loosely defined Cloverfield franchise), by announcing the project during the Super Bowl and releasing it immediately after the game ended, was a game-changing move in film marketing. But as Beyoncé proved with her surprise album back in 2013, this type of thing is going to become more and more common. What’s truly unusual about Paradox is the way it takes a long-dormant format of horror storytelling and updates it for the modern age.
Here’s the basic premise of the film, with specific plot spoilers removed as carefully possible: a space station that is experimenting with a particle accelerator creates a rift in the space-time continuum, which smashes multiple dimensions together and unleashes literal hell on Earth, mostly in the form of gigantic kaiju monsters like the one seen rampaging through New York City in the original Cloverfield.
However well-meaning the scientists aboard the space station were, their tinkering with the very fabric of space-time had catastrophic consequences, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since… well, since the long run of horror movies concerning the hubris of scientists that came into vogue around the 1950’s.
Storytelling, especially in horror, has had its doubts about this whole science thing as long as fiction has existed, but the idea really came into its own in cinema with the radioactive monsters stomping through B-movies after World War 2. The world had seen what nuclear technology could inflict upon the world and lived in constant fear that a hailstorm of missiles was due any minute (not to say that this doesn’t continue to be a fear, but the movies certainly seem to have moved on). These fears of nuclear testing and the hazards of scientific development leaked into films like the Japanese kaiju masterpiece Godzilla (a movie to which Cloverfield certainly owes a life debt), and decidedly cheesier American films like Them!, Beginning of the End, and Tarantula! (which feature oversized mutant ants, grasshoppers, and – you guessed it – a tarantula, respectively).
As history ticked by and the hysterics about nuclear testing died down a bit, the horror genre found other targets, including the most frightening and fascinating development of the century: the computer. The world at large had next to no idea exactly how much power the computer possessed (which was, frankly, not a whole lot at the time), which led to movies like 1981’s Evilspeak, about a bullied student who finds a Satanically possessed computer, or the ’77 film Demonseed, about an A.I. installed into a home that turns sinister and torments its occupant.
Different fears have been in vogue as technology changed at a rapid rate, including a spate of gene-splicing-gone-wrong films beginning around the early 80’s and continuing well into the 90’s (from Piranha to Deep Blue Sea to Watchers to even Jurassic Park) and the evil-consumer-tech films from Japan from the turn of the millennium (One Missed Call, Ringu, Pulse). What all of these films have in common is a fear that humanity is moving forward too fast, and that some poor scientist who only wants to do good is about to make a false step into something truly dangerous and apocalyptic.
Strangely, this trend has died down in the current decade, replaced by the more spiritual boom of supernatural horror films featuring ghosts and demons. This could be due to the fact that science and progress are more widely accepted throughout culture, and the far scarier thing is the mystical beliefs and phenomena that we have turned our backs on. Or maybe it’s just that everyone is sick of watching the same type of movie over and over again.
But the fact is that, in the past decade or so, we haven’t really seen a big movie made in this tradition, unless you count something like The Human Centipede. But it looks like The Cloverfield Paradox has resurrected the form, tapping a new vein of fear in the culture that wasn’t there before: the planet’s desperate search for sustainable energy sources. Energy has become a hot-button issue in recent years, with folks like Elon Musk leading the charge to reduce the Earth’s reliance on the ever-dwindling, ever-controversial resources like coal and oil.
That’s exactly the problem that the good folks on Cloverfield’s space station intend to solve. Unfortunately, in the rush to save the planet, they may have unleashed a power that will ultimately destroy it. But what they have also unleashed is a brand new leg of an ancient storytelling technique, opening the door to a burst of potential horror films based on the newest, scariest science of the day.
While all the interdimensional mayhem plays out in The Cloverfield Paradox, you might not be focusing on the energy crisis necessarily, but every horrific scene stems from that one, fatal mistake. That’s exactly what these movies have always been about: the fallout from science’s unchecked forward progress and the ways it can reach into our lives and warp them in ways we never could have imagined.
It might be stressful out there in the world right now, but thankfully our horror is always here to provide a catharsis. Whether you love or hate The Cloverfield Paradox, the world is always more interesting when horror is reacting to it, and I’m certainly ready to see what comes next.
Brennan Klein is a writer and podcaster who talks horror movies every chance he gets. And when you’re talking to him about something else, he’s probably thinking about horror movies. On his blog, Popcorn Culture, he is running through reviews of every slasher film of the 1980’s, and on his podcast, Scream 101, he and a non-horror nerd co-host tackle horror reviews with a new sub-genre every month!