“Gimbal Lock” – What Went Wrong on Cloverfield Paradox

First and foremost: Quit whining. ‘Cloverfield Paradox’ wasn’t that bad. Wasn’t that good, but it wasn’t that bad, either. If you’re interested in a nerdly takedown of Netflix’s third part of the Cloverfield universe, you’re in the wrong place. Go to Youtube. If anything, Paradox should be discussed in terms of storytelling. It’s a story that achieves ‘gimbal lock.’ Let’s talk about what that means for the rest of us.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a huge fan of Paradox. I sat through the third act feeling like I was grinding loot in a video game. You don’t wanna walk away, you’ve lost a ton of time already, but you aren’t having fun. Watching scifi movies is supposed to be a fun activity, and I wasn’t having fun with Cloverfield Paradox. What went wrong with a movie that was supposed to have everything going right?

I thought a lot about the answer, and it eventually came to me as the good guys save the day: Cloverfield Paradox pushed me through so many twists and turns that I went into gimbal lock. Just like an airplane, or a space craft, stories can experience gimbal lock – their basic premises can get stuck. Then your story, like your space craft, will lose its sense of direction.

I waited a long time to watch Paradox. After all that hate, I didn’t want to see it. Loved Cloverfield, loved 10 Cloverfield Lane … I didn’t want to be disappointed. Finally, one rainy afternoon I fired it up. ‘Fine,’ I told myself. ‘Let’s see what all the hate is about.’ I found myself sucked in after the first ten minutes, and that interest kept me grinding forward until the credits rolled many millenia later.

It felt like that, anyway.

Paradox threw so many plot and tone shifts at you, on top of the idea that you’re in the middle of a complex topic: quantum multiverse travel. Is this about time travel? Is this about the characters I really couldn’t connect with? My lizard brain kept trying to make sense of what I was making sense of and eventually it shut down. As much as I love a complex scifi film about time travel (Primer, anyone?), I couldn’t keep up with Paradox. I think it had wonderful aspirations, but it couldn’t overcome its overbalanced center of story gravity. Requiescat in Pace

That’s not to say the movie was bad. I loved the ideas, loved the execution. If you want to see a movie that features a self-aware disembodied arm, this is your show. The main thing for storytellers is, avoid the ‘story gimbal lock’ you saw in Cloverfield Paradox. It’ll kill a great premise, it’ll kill a great movie. Don’t let this happen to you.

Cloverfield Paradox might enjoy some success if they re-release it with a different edit. Some of those story elements simply did not belong; most of the third act scenes felt like they were tacked on just to give the characters a reason to be in the movie. All in all though, Paradox does what a good scifi movie should: It takes some ideas out of the box, plays with them for a couple of hours, and then puts them away again.

This was me, when they told me I couldn’t leave the theater.

Not only that, Paradox is an interesting model for future scifi projects by Netflix. As you can read in the Wikipedia article, ‘the film was based on God Particle, a spec script from Oren Uziel.’ J.J. Abrams decided to re-work the script, like he did with 10 Cloverfield Lane, to line the franchise together. That’s brilliant for several reasons. Number one, it gives Cloverfield fans more of the universe to explore. Number two, it gives a scifi script that would have otherwise died in development hell a chance to live and breathe. Number three, it’s another stick in the eye of anyone who says Hollywood hates scifi. Hollywood loves scifi, it just doesn’t like losing money.

To sum up – Cloverfield Paradox is an okay scifi movie. For us, the storytellers, we want to avoid the gimbal lock that prevented it from being a great scifi movie. Keep that in mind as you write, and you’ll never go wrong.

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