What Feminist Ideas Can We Explore in…The Cloverfield Paradox? Part Three.
The end. Until Overlord.
If you told me that The Cloverfield Paradox is a sci-fi comedy, I would tell you that it was the best movie ever made. However, I’m not sure so much of it was supposed to be as funny as it was. Surely, they must have known that whole arm thing would be hilarious, right? In any case, this film is not only the second Cloverfield film with a female protagonist, but it is also entirely dependent on the conflict between two women. Let’s dive into feminist analysis of Netflix’s The Cloverfield Paradox. **SPOILERS FOR THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX**
Part 3: The Cloverfield Paradox, or The Answer is Not ‘More Dudes.’
The Cloverfield Paradox starts in a way that should feel very familiar to us all. A black woman is asked to shoulder the responsibility of saving us all from certain doom.
In this case, that woman is Ava Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who is apparently the best scientist in her field, and is the only one who can round out a team going up to Cloverfield space station to solve the Earth’s energy crisis. The team is working with the Shepard particle accelerator aboard the orbiting station, which would provide Earth with infinite energy. Meanwhile, conspiracy theorists fear it will create the “Cloverfield Paradox”, opening portals to allow horrors from parallel universes to threaten Earth.
You see where this is going.
First, let’s talk about straight-up casting. While this film has a female protagonist and three pretty substantial female roles, we’re kept from gender parity by the over-casting of men. Seriously, there are way too many characters in this, and it’s almost as if they put them in just to ensure that there were more dudes in this film than women. Because accuracy in the portrayal of STEM fields? In this near-future sci-fi film that features aliens and alternate dimensions?
Let’s talk about the fact that of the three male characters that had the most to do—Kiel (David Oyelowo), Ernst Schmidt (Daniel Brühl), and Mundy (Chris O’Dowd)—two of them are white. Meanwhile, both the male characters that felt the most unnecessary/redundant—Monk Acosta (John Ortiz) and Ava’s husband Michael (Roger Davies)—are men of color.
Yet they shoved these unnecessary dudes in so they could have their diversity and eat it, too (rather than trimming the fat in the script and simply casting another man of color in either Brühl’s or O’Dowd’s role), keeping the cast from being split evenly across gender lines.
Of the three female roles, Zhang Ziyi’s Chinese engineer, Tam, is the most messy. When Schmidt begins expressing mutinous feelings and attempts to convince Tam to his side, he then begins ordering her around as if she’s his minion. She quickly corrects him, owning her space as she says, “Speak to me like that again, and you and I will have a bigger problem than the Shepard.”
Despite the fact that the film’s protagonist is female, this is really the first moment in the film where a female character asserts her power, and it’s awesome to see. I found myself thinking Yeah! You can’t talk to me like the hired help and then expect me to mutiny with you, dude. She is given the film’s most overtly feminist moment.
Then again, as Bustle points out, Tam is the only character on this international space station that doesn’t speak English at all. On the one hand, this is a powerful choice, as the rest of the the crew speaks her language and English isn’t considered the standard. However, the Asian character is the only one in the film limited to her native language. The Russian scientist doesn’t speak Russian. The German doesn’t speak German. The Brazilian doesn’t speak Portuguese. The only language, and the only character who is othered in this way is the Asian character, the non-Western language.
She’s also the first woman to die in the film. Dock this bonkers movie some intersectional feminism points.
Something that the film has going for it? The fact that ultimately, the story leads to a showdown between two female characters with very clear needs and goals.
Turns out that Mina Jensen (Elizabeth Debicki), the woman who was found mysteriously (and grotesquely) fused into the wires in the wall of the station, is a Cloverfield Station crew member from the alternate timeline they end up in, and when their Cloverfield ends up there, Jensen wants to keep it there, because this Cloverfield has a particle accelerator that works, whereas hers did not, and she wants to save her Earth.
Meanwhile, Hamilton has lost her children in her native timeline thanks to a fatal mistake she made when trying to keep them safe. However, her children are still alive in this new timeline, and she desperately wants to see them, to literally protect them from herself.
The fact that the female protagonist’s entire emotional journey has to do with her children might have annoyed me. I mean, does her story have to do with motherhood? However, what saves it a bit for me is the fact that Hamilton is also wrestling with her children’s death being her own fault.
Usually mothers are portrayed as so pure when it comes to their children. Take Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) in the 2013 film Gravity. There, too, we have a female scientist in space dealing with the death of a child. In that case, however, the child died through a freak playground accident that was in no way her fault. In 2016’s Arrival, the protagonist’s daughter dies of a terminal illness. Both characters are blameless in their children’s deaths, and their grief is completely untainted.
With Hamilton, her children died in a fire because of a decision she made. It isn’t just a mother’s grief we’re seeing here, but a mother’s guilt. A scientist mother, no less, who made a decision based in her expertise, trying to help her children survive an energy crisis, and got it wrong, leading to the accident that took her children from her.
She decides she wants to stay in this timeline in order to keep this version of her children safe, which I couldn’t help but think was a hugely douchey thing to do to her husband in her native timeline, who was already worried about her. She says “Michael would understand,” and I was left thinking Um, NO. No he would not. He would feel betrayed and hurt, and you would be an asshole. She’d also be stealing alterna-Hamilton’s life.
This is the most interesting thing to me about this film, the fact that the protagonist’s guilt is the catalyst not for her decision to take the job on the station in the first place—her children are already dead, and she doesn’t feel terribly invested in saving the world. She needs to be convinced—but for her decision to try and stay in the alternate timeline and “start over.”
However, she quickly, and thankfully, comes to terms with her loss, realizing that she’d be ruining alterna-Hamilton’s life while also sacrificing her own Earth. All because she couldn’t let go of her own grief. But then she still has Jensen to deal with, and in theory, the conflict between two women desperate to save their worlds is a good one.
The problem is that this script is so muddled and poorly written, and the direction is so tonally uneven, that what could have been a weighty conflict that was baked into both characters is reduced to mostly exposition shoehorned into the last, like, fifteen to twenty minutes of the film, along with the Cloverfield monster ending.
It’s sad to me that the Cloverfield film that had a female protagonist of color, other characters of color, and a director of color ended up being done a huge disservice by a cluttered script. Not that Onah’s muddled directing helped.
What could’ve been a film about two women with opposing goals trying to take control of the fate of a particle accelerator was packed full of too many dudes and too many grotesque sci-fi set-pieces and trying to be too many different movies at once instead of choosing a tone and a vibe and going with it.
In the end, the resolution that Hamilton grew into, of being able to come to terms with her loss without doing something stupid, was diluted. What should’ve been a powerful choice ended up being one of many things tacked on to the end of an already too-crowded film.
Feminist Lesson from The Cloverfield Paradox: The answer is never “You know what this movie needs? More mediocre male characters!”
Well, that’s it on the Cloverfield series for now! That is, until Overlord comes out. If you want to check out my #CloverfieldNewbie Cloverfield Marathon, where I watched all three films in this unique franchise for the first time, you can check out the play-by-play of my reactions over at my Instagram, where there are short video reviews and a highlighted story called Cloverfield Noob.
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