With the release of Bright and the shock debut of The Cloverfield Paradox on the night of the SuperBowl, it is clear that Netflix’s strategy for disrupting traditional film distribution has moved up a notch. While neither one of these movies are noteworthy from a pure quality standpoint, both of these movies reveal the genius of Netflix’s version of “blockbuster” filmmaking.
The truth is that Netflix will never be able to compete with the true “event” films that dominate the box office today like Star Wars movies, superhero movies, or anything else that is appreciably (and not just ideologically) better on the big screen. But where Netflix might be truly successful in disrupting the film business is in the next tier of clearly populist material with decent to middling levels of quality.
The past SuperBowl weekend was the perfect example. On it, CBS Films released Winchester, a horror movie starring Helen Mirren which has been generally savaged by critics, and has seen less-than-decent box office results coming in third behind two holdovers. On that Sunday, Netflix announced in a SuperBowl ad that they had acquired a new Cloverfield movie that most people hadn’t even realized was in production and then more importantly announced that it would be released right after the SuperBowl ended. Like Winchester, The Cloverfield Paradox, has not received many positive reviews but that hardly matters because the chief thing that Netflix was selling was not necessarily the movie itself but rather its ease of access.
Even when I go to a movie by myself, the average trip to the movies sets me back about twenty-five bucks or so after I get my requisite small coke and box of raisinets. But more importantly, every time I go to the movies I have to carve out at minimum three hours of my time to actually do it and is entirely dependent on if a showtime is even something I can feasibly do (being a parent of two kids under three any showing remotely close to bedtime is out of the question). Going to the movies is still a special event that has both financial and time costs attached.
Each trip to theatres is a precious commodity that I am going to save for movies that make the trip worthwhile. And in those conditions, a decent movie may not warrant a big enough draw for me to make a special trip to go see it let alone a movie that garners a lot of negative reviews like Winchester. I have no doubt that had The Cloverfield Paradox been released with a normal distribution strategy, I would have taken one look at the Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic score and passed. And here is the genius of Netflix’s strategy: Watching The Cloverfield Paradox requires no such commitment on my time and money. As part of my already paid subscription, it is available to me at the click of a button, can be watched at any time, over multiple sessions, on multiple devices, and if I really don’t enjoy it I can quit at any time without any loss besides the time I already put into it.
Winchester is ultimately going to be buried and consigned a year from now to be in the $5 bin at WalMart. It will be completely forgotten except maybe around Halloween. Meanwhile I have no doubt that more people checked out at least a part of The Cloverfield Paradox over the last week or so than people who have ponied up a ticked to see Winchester. There is also no doubt that The Cloverfield Paradox garnered more attention with much less effort than Winchester. They did this without a press tour, without a multi-million dollar and complicated ad campaign (besides the well-placed SuperBowl spot). And more importantly, all the effort Netflix expended in promoting the movie ultimately did as much for promoting Netflix and its service than the movie itself.
The appeal for filmmakers is that their metric for success is no longer box office receipts, where success for a movie is more often than not dictated by how well it performs in the first 72 hours of its release. Instead success is dictated by whatever metric Netflix determines it to be based on how many clicks the movie gets on the preeminent streaming service in the world. And as far as Netflix is concerned, it doesn’t matter if I check this movie out the night of the SuperBowl or the night of next year’s SuperBowl. That is a much easier target to hit. And therein lies the disruption. Of course whether this is ultimately going to be a good thing or not for the film industry is another question entirely.
And for what it’s worth, here is this critic’s take on these “Blockbusters” in Netflix’s disruptive film library:
BRIGHT (2017) dir. David Ayer
It was somewhere between Will Smith uttering “fairy lives don’t matter” (about an actual mythical fairy) and his daughter informing him that his orc-cop partner “is a person too” (at around the eight minute mark) that I gave up any hope that Bright would be an actually good movie. All that was left to see is if the movie might still be entertaining in a “so ridiculously that it’s watchable” way.
This first attempt at a blockbuster by Netflix is certainly ambitious from a concept level. David Ayer’s film imagines a world in which magical creatures like orcs, elves, and fairies have coexisted with us and have together formed a society analogous to ours. Into this alternate reality steps Will Smith as the bigoted cop Daryl Ward who to his dismay is forced to partner with Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the first orc-cop in the LAPD’s history. A routine call to a disturbance quickly plunges them into a plot involving a magic wand, fanatical cult groups, and the threat of the reemergence of magic into society and with it the end of the world as we know it.
On paper this sounds like a promising premise for a fun action movie. Unfortunately, most of it falls apart in the execution. This begins with the script which is truly horrendous. The line delivery by Smith and Edgerton is extremely flat and lacks any real chemistry which is especially arduous considering Will Smith tries of insert one-liners just about every chance he gets with about a one-in-ten hit ratio. In addition, as I hinted at the start, it is filled with extremely obvious and clunky commentary of modern politics and race dynamics, committing the great sin of too often telling when it should show instead.
A greater problem of this movie is that it is extremely sloppy in its world-building. World-building is key to any good fantasy movie, and in this case it seems that Ayer and crew significantly under-baked their mythology. Very little is extrapolated in terms of how we got to this magical world that looks suspiciously close to ours besides some vague description of events past. At one point a Hispanic gang-member (this world still has those) comments that they are still being blamed for the Alamo, which is surprisingly an event that still happened in exactly the same way that it happened in our timeline. In a throwaway line Smith derisively calls one of the orcs he meets “Shrek” meaning that this reality also had the multi-million dollar animated movie series. An orc comments about how he used to party with all the species in Miami before moving to a more racially charged Los Angeles which means that in this alternate reality, the basic reputations of those two cities would match ours. And this simply is not believable. Why would the course of this alternate world’s history, with the very different addition of magical creatures, mirror ours? And more importantly, why would you want it to mirror ours? The movie’s concept allows the director to literally go anywhere in creating the mythology of this alternate world. Why choose something so boring as to create a slightly different but mostly analogous depiction of our own reality?
But by far though the greatest problem of this movie is in the competing tones of the movie. Everything about the script and look of this movie hints that the movie should lean into campiness. But there is such a humorless self-seriousness to the proceedings as the movie tries and fails to make some larger allegorical comment on our own society. And the reason it fails is that the larger themes of the movie are not at all concerned with reality but in escapist fantasy. So much of the problems of this movie would be solved if there was just a hint of campiness present, if the actors and director gave some hint that they knew they were making a fun and slightly ridiculous blockbuster. The second half of the film, where it basically becomes one action set-piece after another, is fun to a degree but is let down because nobody involved even hints that they might be having fun.
Ultimately, I do think its a little unfair that most critics have dumped on the movie and dubbed it the worst movie of the year. But make no mistake, a lot of this movie is a mess. And it is a mess because it can’t quite figure out what kind of film it wants to be. Look, I don’t need all my movies to be elegant art films. Escape From New York, the movie I thought about most when watching Bright, is a great action movie because everyone involved knows that they are acting in a ridiculous action movie. A little of that attitude would’ve gone a long way into elevating Bright beyond its middling mediocrity.
THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX (2018) dir. Julius Onah
The Cloverfield Paradox might be the most cynical cash grab in modern movie history. Originally conceived as God Particle, the movie had absolutely no connection to the Cloverfield universe until J.J. Abrams and the people at Bad Robot figured out a way to shoehorn it in during production. As a result the movie feels like a slapdash attempt to fit a square peg into a round hole that leaves the movie a horrible mix of genres and storylines. Having discovered that they had a turd on their hands, Paramount studios found themselves in a predicament of having to market a movie that was probably going to be savaged at the box-office. Fortunately for them, in steps Netflix looking for the perfect project with which to stage the one of the best SuperBowl ad coups of all time. Hence movie history is made, cynical as it is.
As far as the actual content of the movie, the movie starts out promising on paper. A stellar and diverse cast of great character actors led by Gugu Mbatha-Raw all form a space crew who are experimenting on a particle accelerator as a means of solving the Earth’s energy crisis. Had the name “Cloverfield” not been attached to the top of the movie, we might have assumed that the movie was going to take a Contact-like direction into hard sci-fi. But naturally, thanks to the aforementioned “Cloverfield” in the title of the movie, we know that things are wont to go wrong and when it does the movie shifts into dumb horror in an inelegant and unoriginal mix of Alien and The Thing. But infuriatingly, the movie refuses to stay in that lane either, flitting back and forth between hard sci-fi and schlock horror with whiplash speed making for a haphazard movie from beginning to end.
And for a film that has “Cloverfield” to the title, the movie actually has extremely little to do with the monster of the original movie or of shedding any real light as to its orgins. There is an obvious disconnect between the paranoia-thriller taking place on the space station and the scenes that they show on earth where a monster shows up especially since the connection between the two settings is linked by one relationship which was set up with one scene in an obviously added prologue. One will easily surmise which scenes were part of the original screenplay and which ones were written to make the movie fit into the franchise. Not helping matters is a wooden script with absolutely painful and cringeworthy lines that most of the actors involved try to make the most of but they ultimately can’t do anything to save the film from being anything but a mediocre disappointment.
There is no doubt that the movie is a masterclass in stunt marketing. It is just a pity that the end product falls so far short of the potential of its original story and the legacy of the other Cloverfield movies that came before it.