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From ‘Gravity’ to ‘The Cloverfield Paradox,’ Contemporary Studio Sci-Fi Continues to Define Its Women By Their Motherhood

Modern sci-fi stories put women in bold and essential roles, before stripping them down to outdated paradigms that belong in another universe.

“The Cloverfield Paradox”

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There’s plenty that’s familiar in Netflix’s latest big budget affair, the shoehorned continuation of the “Cloverfield” franchise, “The Cloverfield Paradox,” which surprise-launched on the streaming giant after the Super Bowl. The film, directed by Julius Onah and written by Oren Uziel, instantly drew comparisons to other sci-fi properties, from “Event Horizon” to “Life,” thanks to a plot driven by set-in-space terror. Yet “The Cloverfield Paradox” has far more in common with two other contemporary space-set sci-fi studio outings, if only because they all share the same retrograde vision of otherwise compelling female characters.

“The Cloverfield Paradox” follows a group of astronauts on the orbiting Cloverfield space station who are tasked with making a risky particle accelerator churn out an infinite amount of free energy, in order to save an Earth that has plunged into chaos during a global energy crisis. The film boasts a diverse cast, including David Oyelowo, Elizabeth Debicki, Daniel Bruhl, and Zhang Ziyi, but is mostly fixed on the experience of Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s character Ava Hamilton. Like her sci-fi sisters in arms from films like “Gravity” and “Arrival,” Ava is presented as a smart, capable scientist who ultimately gives herself – and her mission – over to her other identity: as a mother.

The hints come early that Ava and her husband Michael (Roger Davies) have suffered something terrible, with an introductory scene centered on Ava wringing her hands over the possibility of taking the Cloverfield gig. She’s even surprised that her boss would even want her to go to the station, despite what she’s been through. She may be a fully capable communications officer, but the film is mostly consumed by the fact that she’s stymied by the emotional trauma of losing her children to a recent house fire. That’s as far as her growth goes, and all the film offers in service to building her character.

It’s a storyline that grows more important as “Paradox” winds on, ultimately consuming both Ava as a person and as a character. Her training and her intellect are nothing compared to her personal pain, and “Paradox” seems to find that it’s the only important part of Ava’s journey, reducing her to a single dimension of her personality. She’s a scientist, an astronaut, a wife, a friend, and perhaps the last key to saving a ruined world, but even with the highest stakes imaginable (literally, the fate of the universe), her only emotional connection is rooted solely in her motherhood. “Paradox” can’t imagine that a character – a woman – could be more than just that. It becomes her only identifying characteristic, robbing her of agency and individuality.

Ava’s motherhood eventually becomes the focal point of both her journey and the film as a whole. After a seemingly successful test of the particle accelerator, “Paradox” lets on what’s really happening: the melding of two different alternate universes. Ava is staggered to discover that her children are alive in this alternate dimension, and becomes obsessed with the idea of leaving the station to return to Earth to see the children, despite repeated warnings that doing so would jeopardize the safety of the entire universe (including those alternate universe kids). The emotion is very real, but it’s played cheaply.

"Arrival"

“Arrival”

Paramount Pictures

“I don’t just need to see them, I need to save them,” Ava tells a fellow crew member, convinced that she can get to Earth in time to warn them (or even alternate Ava) about the perimeters of the accident that killed her children, so that it doesn’t happen again. Ava is speaking entirely from a place of emotion, abandoning her sterling training and obvious intellect – and even the previous sense that she might be the only person on the ship capable of making good decisions – for a renegade mission in the middle of a tremendous crisis, and weirder still, Oyelwo’s Captain Kiel gives into it.

Ultimately, Ava’s own desire to help her children is used as manipulative bait by another crew member (and why wouldn’t it be? again, it’s the sole factor identifying her), and Ava’s greatest victory soon involves shooting out a screen that’s playing video of her happy, alternate universe family. There’s no middle ground – she has to destroy her dreams in the most melodramatic way possible, while also continuing to act in a reckless fashion – and it comes as a relief when she eventually lands on a clever plan to both warn alternate Ava and return to her own universe. It may well be the only good decision anyone in “Paradox” makes.

Otherwise interesting female characters are often reduced to their biological functions in contemporary sci-fi, even in lauded offerings like “Gravity” and “Arrival,” which both used dead kid trauma as a shoddy twist to drive the narrative. Even “Alien,” which is still the best example of how to create a franchise around a bold female character, couldn’t avoid the trope – it’s revealed in the second film that Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) not only had a daughter, but she’s died in the interim between her mother’s missions (you may remember, Ripley was in statis for nearly six decades between the first two films). At least the more recent “Alien” entries have shed the need to cast its heroines as mothers who can’t see beyond that role, and “Prometheus” offers up maybe the genre’s bloodiest rebuke against pregnancy imaginable.

Sandra Bullock’s character in “Gravity” is compelling enough to hold down the majority of the film, but instead of letting her Dr. Ryan Stone occupy a role that’s about her being a smart, capable professional – the kind of role so often give to male actors – she’s ultimately cast as just another heartbroken woman. Why would a woman possibly go to space? Oh, she’s sad her kid died. It’s her only motivation, notwithstanding the fact that she’s initially portrayed as a genius doctor who’s in space because she’s the only one qualified for a specific mission.

At least “Arrival” obscures the trauma of its leading lady as part and parcel of its unique narrative structure. We know from the jump that Louise Banks (Amy Adams) has suffered something terrible, but Denis Villeneueve’s film reveals the hows and whys of that something over the course of a satisfying story. By its own end, Louise’s pain over her own dead child has informed the whole of the story, but it never feels as cheap as the other films, which seem happy to throw in such wrenching details to add unearned dimension to women that are already interesting.

Think of it this way: In Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” Matt Damon’s character Mark Watney – the anchor of the entire film, and the titular Mars resident – is portrayed as someone oddly free of earthbound connections. There’s a scant mention of his parents, but there’s never anything said about a partner or kids, even his friends. (Notably, Jessica Chastain stars as Watney’s own team leader, and she too isn’t defined by her kids – she doesn’t have any.) Instead, the film lets Watney and his own struggle (not to mention his intellect and experience, plus those damn potatoes) take center stage, trusting that a single person, built as a complex human with a litany of emotions and needs and roles, is riveting enough to ground an entire film. It’s not shooting for the moon to ask that Hollywood let its female sci-fi stars do the same.

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