Women in Science Fiction Film: A Viewer

This page offers a selection of viewing recommendations for those interested in the study of female representation in science fiction cinema. Dean has been researching and writing in this field for more than 25 years; it is the subject of his PhD thesis and a longer version of this page forms the Appendix of his latest book...

The Portrayal of Women in Science Fiction Cinema
A survey of female roles in the genre from 1895 to 2018

Published by McFarland and Co., USA (available worldwide - details here)

Latest page update:
30th December 2020
THE VIEWER: Female Representation in Science Fiction Cinema

Jump to: 1900s ~ 1910s ~ 1920s ~ 1930s ~ 1940s ~ 1950s ~ 1960s ~ 1970s ~ 1980s ~ 1990s ~ 2000s ~ 2010s ~ latest entry

The films listed below are in chronological order. It's not an exhaustive list - and it may not include your favourites - but it gives a fair indication of how the female character has developed throughout the history of science fiction film. They may not all be 'good' films - or even 'good' female roles, but they're all useful for study. They tell us something about the state of play - historical documents if you will.

As with any genre study, you might like to start with films in the canon - those influential texts that writers, critics and academics talk about because they changed the genre in some way (Le Voyage dans la Lune, Metropolis, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars). Then there's the list of films that you really should see because they're stalwarts of the genre or because they represent the best examples of various sub-categories (When Worlds Collide, Forbidden Planet, The Matrix, Avatar). Then there the films that help with an overview of the genre itself and indicate women's roles within in it (Frau im Mond, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Barbarella, Alien). And finally, for now, there are the curiosities - the, often bizarre, one-offs that may not have changed the genre, but somehow seem to define its parameters, or at least throw a bit more light on women's roles (Aelita: Queen of Mars, Born in Flames, Species, Robotrix).

Strictly speaking, we should be talking about the 'female' in science fiction film. 'Women' is too restrictive: SAL9000, HAL's 'little sister', is a computer; the wives of Stepford are famously replaced by robots - or gynoids; and Alice Krige's Borg Queen cyborg is like no woman I ever met!

Everybody has their 'must see' list. This is getting close to mine, although I could easily add another 50 favourite films (and have included a few others in my book). I would love to hear your selections. Please send your comments, corrections and suggestions to me here. Happy reading - and viewing.

Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #winsff #winsff
Warning: The film desriptions marked ** contain potential 'spoilers'.  
Chapellerie et Charcuterie Mécanique (Alice Guy-Blaché, France, 1900)
This is not quite the first science fiction film, nor is it even an original concept; however, it may well be the first of the genre's films directed by a woman. Five years after the Lumière Brothers presented a large wooden box that turned a live pig into chops, sausages and hams in the 1-minute Charcuterie Mécanique (Mechanical Butcher, 1895), Alice Guy-Blaché produced this 4-minute version - turning cats into hats! These joined the very early pictures that used the magic of cinema framing, sleight of hand and editing to fool and amaze the audience - what Phil Hardy calls the "Trick Films". They're not sophisticated, but they tell us a something about female representation in those very early days. This is a special case in this list: it's the only movie with no female characters at all, which, in itself, tells us something about the state of the art in 1900.
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Le Voyage Dans La Lune (Georges Méliès, France, 1902)
The face of the moon with a space capsule stuck in his eye is one of the iconic images of science fiction cinema. Stage magician Georges Méliès revelled in the new medium of film. It enabled him to do tricks that he could only dream of before: making people vanish instantaneously was a favourite. The women in this, the original space epic, take roles that were to follow them through the history of science fiction cinema. On Earth they are the scientists' beautiful assistants that came to litter the films of the 1920s and '30s. On the moon they are Selenites, beautiful alien ancestors of the likes of Sil (Species) and Leeloo (The Fifth Element); they are led by their alien queen - another staple of the genre, as we see from the next film in this list...
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1910s Pending...
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Aelita: Queen of Mars (Jakov Protozanov, USSR, 1924)
This is one of those curiosities mentioned in the introduction. The plot is fairly thin: apparently based on a story by Tolstoy, it tells of man's trip to Mars, where he falls in love with the martian queen, &c. &c. However, with its impressive Constructivist-cum-Deco sets and costumes, and actors seemingly following the Meyerhold school, Aelita: Queen of Mars clearly indicates the avant-garde, artistic ambitions of the pre-Stalinist Soviet Union. This is the nation which first put a woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova, 1963); unfortunately, Aelita's only real legacy was to be the beautiful, petulant, fashion-conscious, alien queens who followed. Notable amongst these is Zsa Zsa Gabor's outrageous Queen of Outer Space (1958).
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Metropolis (Fritz Lang, Germany, 1927)
Ninety years on and this still has the best looking female robot in science fiction cinema, a testament to the vision of Fritz Lang and his design team. However, despite (or perhaps because of) the stunning designs and Eugen Schüfftan's revolutionary special effects, Metropolis falls into the style-over-substance trap which continues to dog the genre. Lang's wife, Thea von Harbou, offers a story in which the underground worker drones rebel against their surface-dwelling masters - borrowing themes from, amongst other things, the communist revolution and Karel Capek's 1920 robot play R.U.R. For our purposes here the story is notable for the heroine Maria's role as the mediator (heart) between the workers (hands) and the masters (head). But for good measure, she also unwittingly incites rebellion and gets naked in a strip joint. Plus ça change. [more on Metropolis here]
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Frau im Mond [aka: Woman in the Moon] (Fritz Lang, Germany, 1929)
Fritz Lang with Thea von Harbou (wri.) make this list again. Not just because the German studio UFA was producing the best films at the time, and not just because this is a visually stunning and technically brilliant film. Nor was she even the first woman to go into movie space (cf. the 1917 Danish film Himmelskibet). Frau im Mond is here because of the strength and prominence of Gerda Maurus' eponymous female protagonist. Much has been made of her 'male' clothing, with even a suggestion that her 'phallic' tie betrays feminist sympathies (see the booklet which comes with the 2008 'Masters of Cinema' DVD release). Take that with as much salt as you wish, but, simply put, this female role - coming just 11 years after women's suffrage in Germany - is way ahead of its time. [See here for excellent resourses in English and French].
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Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, USA, 1935)
Since Frankenstein, science fiction has been attracted to the notion of man creating man - usurping the role of God and woman. However, a holy grail for this predominantly male genre has been to turn the tables on nature completely: science fiction allows man to create woman - for the first time since Genesis. This sequel to James Whale's 1931classic points to some strong recurring genre themes. The notion of the male-created female plaything/servant is seen in many films, including: Cherry 2000 (1987), two versions of The Stepford Wives, Westworld (1973) and Logan's Run (1976) (the latter both being remade). The allied notion of the beautiful, desirable 'alien' has already been discussed - and they don't get much more desirable than Elsa Lanchester.
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The Perfect Woman (Bernhard Knowles, UK, 1949)
Continuing the theme of man-creating-woman is this odd little British comedy. As we see with films like Earth Girls Are Easy (1988) and Galaxy Quest (1999), comedy, satire, spoof and pastiche are good places to see genre stereotypes at play. When a genre starts to laugh at itself, you know the tropes are entrenched. Borrowing from The Tales of Hoffmann and drawing-room farce, The Perfect Woman chronicles multiple mix-ups following the creation of a robot who looks just like the scientist's pretty niece. For the connection junkies out there: this film features Stanley Holloway, who starred in My Fair Lady - a version of the man-creates-woman tale Pygmalion. However, The Perfect Woman is perhaps better appreciated for its seeming fetish for women's underwear!
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Osa Massen Rocketship X-M (Kurt Neumann, USA, 1950)
We had already seen Dale Arden go into space alongside Flash Gordon in the 1930s, but this film may well feature the first bona fide professional female astronaut in American science fiction cinema. In a clear nod to Gerda Maurus’ performance in Frau im Mond, Danish actor, Osa Massen is excellent as the cool, calm, collected chemist, Dr Lisa Van Horn, on a mission to the Moon with four men. She is here on merit, as the person who developed the fuel that makes the rocket go, but this being 1950, a fair amount of the dialogue refers to her gender. It’s not always clear if the filmmakers are sneering at the idea of a woman in space, or are sneering at people who sneer at the idea of a woman in space. Regardless of that, it’s the woman who wins in the end, despite the unorthodox climax – another element of this film that owes something to Frau im Mond.
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The Day The Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, USA, 1951)
Robert Wise - editor of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941), and the director who would bring The Sound of Music (1965) and West Side Story (1961) to the screen - presents here a genre rarity: a woman who saves the world. This is arguably the best female role since Frau im Mond. Patricia Neal - who would later win an Oscar for her role in Hud (1963) - plays Helen Benson, the mother and secretary who befriends an alien visitor, Klaatu. From an apparent female stereotype, Benson emerges (like Maria in Metropolis) to become the film's voice of reason. A landmark of the genre, this classic role was created by screenwriter Edmund North from a short story containing no female characters. The 2008 film remake largely misses the point, reducing Benson's narrative impact. [For more on Helen Benson, see Dean's essay here]
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The Thing (from Another World) (Christian Nyby, USA, 1951) [**contains plot-spoiler(s)]
Through the 1950s the female assistants-to-male-scientists had started to become scientists themselves - though sometimes more in name than nature. Although Margaret Sheridan's character here, Nikki, is not one of those scientists, she does herald their arrival with her actions; however, her key contribution shows that women still had some way to go. Threatened in their arctic base by a vegetable-based, alien creature, a group of men run out of ideas on how to kill it. Nikki musters her 'female' experience to suggest that they cook it: "boil it, bake it, stew it, fry it". John Carpenter's 1982 sequel has no female characters (barring the voice of the chess computer). It would seem that the men had learned to cook by then; women were redundant.
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Them! (Gordon Douglas, USA, 1954)
This is one of the best of the crop of classic US science fiction films from what has been called the 'golden age' of the genre. Most critics put the alien invasion films down to anti-communist paranoia, although there are anti-liberal, 'authoritarian' readings of films like The Day The Earth Stood Still. Genre generalities aside, there was certainly an increase in the number of women scientists and PhDs. However, these advances were balanced by restrictions - ways of bringing her back to an 'expected' female representation. In the case of Dr Pat Medford, played by Joan Weldon, in Them!, she works second fiddle to her scientist father, she becomes the love interest, and our first glimpse of her is of those sexy legs climbing out of the plane. Still, it's a start.
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Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, USA, 1956)
It's easy to forget just how good Anne Francis is in this science fiction re-working of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Playing the sexy, innocent Altaira (Miranda), with her tiny dresses and dubious lines must have seemed a thankless task, but Francis brings something special to the role - understanding, perhaps, that faux naïveté is the essence of the characterisation. The role itself, however, doesn't bring much to the study of women in science fiction film or drama, except perhaps an indication that expectations hadn't changed much in 350 years. MGM gave Forbidden Planet the full treatment, bringing a big budget, sumptuous colour and CinemaScope to the genre - a Wizard of Oz in space. A remake has been 'in development' for a while, so enjoy this one before they destroy Altaira's innocence with a 21st century sensibility!
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Barbarella (Roger Vadim, France/Italy, 1968)
If you're looking for greatness, move to the next entry in this list. If you're looking for science fiction ideas, do likewise. But if you're looking for a tittilating school-boy-esque exploitation of the director's sexy wife of the time, then keep reading. There are arguments that Barbarella takes control of sex and her sexuality and so becomes a feminist icon, but from the opening zero-gravity striptease, through Paco Rabanne's lingerie-inspired costumes, to the BDSM city of Sogo and the orgasm machine, this film clearly screams male-fantasy. Based on Jean-Claud Forest's comic strip, Vadim's piece has Jane Fonda stumble from one 'erotic' scenario to the next, with an innocence not unlike Altaira's. So why has Barbarella become one of the genre's enduring icons? Sex, colour, glamour, the force of Fonda's personality. Oh, and it's fun. The promised remake has a hard act to follow.
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2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA, 1968)
I know, I know, this film has the worst roles for women since Destination Moon (1950). There's a short scene on the space station, video conferences with Kubrick's daughter and Poole's Mother, a pointless chat with a female scientist, while two others sit and watch and, of course, those stewardesses on the space flight. And that's more-or-less it. But that's the reason this film is here. Perhaps the most lauded, iconic film of the genre has scant place for women. It is 'famously sexless'. Why is that? Earlier great technological achievements of science fiction cinema, Just Imagine (1930), Things to Come (1939), Destination Moon (1950), even Forbidden Planet (1956) offer little more for women either, but that was pre-1960s. Kubrick was working in a 'post-feminist' world, surely? Maybe 2001 is part of the director's male kick-back: to silence the enemy or to stifle the fight; 2001:ASO is less violent, but perhaps, in its way, just as misogynistic as his A Clockwork Orange (1971). It was an ethos that would filter through to some of the genre's later technical achievement, including Blade Runner and Tron (both 1982).
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Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, USA, 1968)
Like Barbarella, this is based on French science fiction literature - this time Pierre Boulle's 1963 novel, La Planète des Singes (Monkey Planet). Charlton Heston's female astronaut colleague dies in the opening sequence, leaving the film with two key female roles. The first is Linda Harrison's pelt-clad savage, Nova (an echo of Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC [1966]), thrown to Heston as a sexual mate; the second character is Kim Hunter's chimpanzee, (Dr) Zira. As the film's voice of reason, Zira continues the tradition passed down through The Day The Earth Stood Still from Metropolis. It is interesting to note that, despite the many changes in Tim Burton's 2001 're-imagining', these central female characters (from Boulle's novel) remain intact. Perhaps they say something to the psyche - or, at least, to the cinema-goer.
[For more on Dr. Zira, see Dean's essay with Lynne Magowan here]
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The Andromeda Strain (Robert Wise, USA, 1971) [**contains plot-spoiler(s)] [For more on James Cameron's female characters, see Dean's essay here]
Robert Wise's first science fiction film since his 1951 classic The Day The Earth Stood Still offers another significant female character. Kate Reid plays the professional, no-nonsense scientist, Dr Ruth Leavitt. With some of wittiest lines in the film, Leavitt confidently navigates what is still shown to be a man's world - complete with sexism, stereotypes, and female nudity. When an unknown virus from the Andromeda Galaxy threatens life of Earth, it is Dr Leavitt who fathoms the crystalline structure which will eventually be its undoing. This from the pen of Michael Crichton, whose later film Coma would bring another effective female science fiction film character to the fore. Robert Wise's next genre offering fared less well: Star Trek - The Motion Picture (1979).
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Solaris [aka: Solyaris] (Andrei Tarkovsky, USSR, 1971) [**contains plot-spoiler(s)]
A psychological masterpiece from the haunting novella by Stanslaw Lem. This film takes for its subject the implicit nature of the science fiction film itself: a vehicle for male fantasy. Orbiting the planet Solaris in a space station, Kris is visited by an apparition of his dead wife. The planet has the power to materialise human thought. The women in this film are by definition male-constructs, and so they conform to (often sexual) male fantasies. Not revealing in itself, but the notion is turned on its head when Kris loses control of his fantasy, and it starts to control him. A treatise on desire and isolation, this has been dubbed the 'Soviet 2001'. Tarkovsky certainly shared Kubrick's famed perfectionism - and the run of the studio. Almost half of his next science fiction masterpiece, Stalker (1979), was completely re-shot after the director was unhappy with the results. [Steven Soderbergh's restrained 2002 remake of Solaris with George Clooney and Natascha McElhone is also worth a visit]
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The Stepford Wives (Bryan Forbes, USA, 1975) [**contains plot-spoiler(s)]
Misogyny or a feminist warning from the future? If we accept the premise that science fiction has been a crucible of male fantasies, it might be easy to see this film as anti-feminist - especially coming at a time when "women's lib" was high in the public mind. However, replacing the wives in a town with dull, robotic simulacra seems an odd way to create a male utopia. Besides, male fears about feminism have tended to generate warning films about societies of female dominance: One Hundred Years After (1911), Percy Pimpernickel, Soubrette (1914), In the Year 2014 (1914) were all paranoid responses to the women's suffrage movements of the early 20th century. The Stepford Wives is screenwriter William Goldman's elegant musing on Ira Levin's 'what if' scenario; an interesting genre study. The 2004 re-imagining, on the other hand, completely misses the point.
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Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)
This film forced pulp science fiction frilm out of its low budget B-movie status and began a genre revival (2001 ASO and Planet of the Apes notwithstanding). Lucas famously drew together bits and pieces from other sources: film, literature, culture, and bound these with the writings of Campbell, Jung and Castaneda. The execution is first-rate and there are, of course, some original elements, but Carrie Fisher's Leia does not seem - initially - to be one of them. It is easy to dismiss this character as a fairy-tale princess in a tower waiting to be rescued by her knights in shining (white) armour; however, here is a gutsy female character in a hugely successful film targeted at families. This model could no longer be ignored. Leia's feisty-fighter nature is developed a little more in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), but that work is arguably undone by the gold bikini in Return of the Jedi (1984). For the most radical of Lucas' female characters, don't go forwards to the prequels, but take a look back to THX 1138 (1971).
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Coma (Michael Crichton, USA, 1978) [**contains plot-spoiler(s)]
Forgetting the science fiction for a moment, this is a fine study of female struggle in a patriarchal environment. The diminutive Genevieve Bujold is patronised and pushed aside, but she keeps springing back. Bujold plays Dr Susan Wheeler, who becomes wary when an unusual number of patients in her hospital fall into a state of coma. Her diligence and detective work lead her to the discovery that the comas are being induced so that the victims can be stored and their organs harvested when required. It's marginal science fiction, but it's a neat story, with a very effective female role. However, at some point, somebody decided that there should be a scene with Bujold naked behind a steamy shower screen. Why? It seems that old habits die hard.
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Alien (Ridley Scott, UK, 1979) [**contains plot-spoiler(s)]
Much imitated and highly influential, this is regarded by many to be the undisputed #1 in the women-in-science-fiction-film canon. Thirty-plus years after the event it's difficult to imagine the impact that this film had on the film-going public. If nothing else, Alien's legacy is the tough, lithe, gun-toting women that we find in The Terminator, Total Recall (1990), The Matrix and many other films, but there's more to it than this. Alien takes risks from the start. There's no dialogue for more than 6 minutes and the dark, grubby space ship eschews the largely clean lines of 2001 ASO and Star Wars; but perhaps Alien's biggest gamble is Sigourney Weaver's Ripley. When the crew of the spaceship Nostromo is ravaged by a primeval, predatory alien, Lt. Ellen Ripley is the last to survive - the pride of women everywhere, and a remarkable point in the history of women in the genre. However, like Coma, this film sees a need to expose the woman's femininity. Alien does this most notably when Ripley risks her life to save the cat, and in the 'strip' sequence at the film's climax. Much has been written about these elements: they may be indications of the implicit sexism of a male director, but they may be there merely to indicate Ripley's representative humanity in the face of the alien. After all, women are human too.
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Blade Runner [The Director's Cut] (Ridley Scott, USA, 1982 [1992])
Ridley Scott again, this time with one of the enduring favourites of the canon. If we were looking for a crude distinction between science fiction literature and science fiction film, we might say that the former relies on ideas and the latter on spectacle. Blade Runner offers both. The ideas here come from philosophical science fiction writer Philip K. Dick and his short story 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep'; the images owe much to the earlier future-city visions of Metropolis and Things to Come. The resulting film belongs entirely to Scott. The female roles don't revolutionise the genre in the way his Ripley did; in fact Scott offers us three very different, but (literally) male-created, fantasy women, whose roots reach beyond Metropolis. However, this story goes further: it questions the nature of creation and examines the responsibilities of the (male) creator. The Director's Cut, released in 1992, places the women and men on a more equal footing by making victims of both.
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Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden, USA, 1983) [**contains plot-spoiler(s)]
This is a tough one to recommend because, well frankly, it's struggle to get through. More a filmed manifesto, its gonzo-documentary style often feels like hectoring - repeating or over-stating its message. However, it's here for its clear attempt to use the genre to make a (socialist liberal) feminist statement, Written, directed and produced on a tiny budget by Lizzie Borden, Born in Flames presents a near future in which a socialist government has promised a voice for all minority groups, regardless of race, class, creed, colour, sexuality, gender, &c. However, utopia turns to dystopia when it becomes clear that this ballot box revolution can't create enough jobs. The film ends with a Marxist feminist call for the 'women's army' to take over the methods of production and control, with force: "we will not stop fighting until we get proportional representation in government". The final image is of an explosion at the top of the twin towers in New York - phallic symbols of male oppressive control?
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The Terminator (James Cameron, UK/USA, 1984)
When we think of Sarah Connor, it's easy to recall the tough, gun-toting, guerrilla-fighter of Terminator 2: Judgment Day; but remember how she started: an absent-minded waitress, potential victim to Arnold Schwartznegger's iconic T-800 cyborg assassin. Connor's polarised character, and development through this first film, is not merely an attempt to create an interesting character arc; it's an insurance policy. In order to ensure that 1984 audiences accept the finale's feisty fighter, her character is 'balanced' with the more familiar 'feminine' images and traits. We see this balancing act played out throughout the genre. Sometimes the alter-egos are contained in one character: Metropolis, Solaris; sometimes they are shared: Westworld, Blade Runner. The star of this film is Arnie, but, as with Alien, the foundation has been laid for a female-focused sequel...
[For more on James Cameron's female characters, see Dean's essay here]
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2010 (Peter Hyams, USA, 1984)
The Soviet Union sent its first woman into space 18 years before the Americans did, so it is fitting (and fair) that that Helen Mirren plays a Soviet spaceship captain here, taking an international team of scientists to Jupiter in order to discover what went wrong with the mission chronicled in Kubrick's 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. This sequel introduces us to HAL's little 'sister', SAL. And little is the word here, for even though the SAL9000 is an advanced version of the HAL9000 logic-based machine, she is treated from the beginning like a child by computer scientist Dr Chandra. The other female characters may draw on female stereotypes, but then so do the men. In fact 2010 follows the line taken by the genre classic (despite its lack of female roles), Silent Running (1972), namely that the world would be a better place without politicians to screw it up (and those politicians are all male too).
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Aliens (James Cameron, USA/UK, 1986) [**contains plot-spoiler(s)]
Generally regarded as the best of the Alien films (though not my favourite), Aliens does not have to concern itself with the niceties of Ripley's back story, or to explain her nature. We know she's a woman, we know she's organised and we know she's tough; however, we didn't know she was this tough! Aliens develops Ripley's female-fighter role, but again, is careful to emphasise the heroine's feminine side: the animal-lover in Alien and the lover/mother in The Terminator become surrogate mother here. But Cameron's balancing act does far more than this: it sets the seeds for discussions about identity and loyalty which will sustain the franchise. When the 'synthetic' Bishop saves Ripley's surrogate child, Newt, in the climactic sequence, it reminds Ripley - and us - of our ingrained prejudices. Bishop responds to Ripley's own heroism with: "not bad for a human". Ripley is beginning to be defined not by her gender, but by her actions, her reactions, and her innate humanity. She is becoming a feminist icon.
[For more on Lt. Ripley, see Dean's essay here]
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The Abyss (James Cameron, USA, 1989)
Another James Cameron film and another ostensibly strong female protagonist; although this time one wonders whether the lady doth protest too much. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio takes the woman-meets-alien model underwater as Dr Lindsey Brigman, a mining rig designer. She also follows Ripley's technical role, not a common occurrence in the genre. When female scientists started to emerge in the 1950s, they tended to specialise in what has been described as the 'soft sciences': disciplines taking animals, plants or people as subjects. These references to Mother Nature take the form of psychologists (Invaders from Mars, 1953), psychiatrists (The Invasion, 2007), anthropologists (Memoirs of an Invisible Man, 1992), palaeontologists (Jurassic Park, 1993), archaeologists (Stargate, 1994 [more here]), and marine-biologists (2010). The trend has continued into the 21st century with Jennifer Connelly's astrobiologist in the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still.
[For more on James Cameron's female characters, see Dean's essay here]
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The Handmaid's Tale (Volker Schlöndorff, USA/Germany, 1990)
Everyone has their notion of what is and what is not science fiction. For some, King Kong (1933) is out - along with all the BEM (bug-eyed monster) films, but some allow Godzilla (1954) because the monster is created by a nuclear explosion (i.e. the result of science). Others discount the 'future dystopia' story - unless it offers a specific scientific or technological concept (cf. The Island, 2005). There's no doubting that Margaret Atwood's harrowing tale - in a screenplay here from Harold Pinter - is effective social commentary; however, the preoccupations are religious and political, not scientific. In fact, despite the film's title and popularity with feminist critics and commentators, The Handmaid's Tale shares the blame for its atrocities between men and women. The dystopia is built more on class and wealth. See also P.D. James' Children of Men, released as a film in 2006.
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Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, USA/France, 1991) [**contains plot-spoiler(s)]
Creating a sequel can be a blessing and a curse. The element of surprise engendered by the science fiction premise is lost (which reduced the impact of RoboCop 2, 1990), but there is more opportunity to develop the other characters (which RoboCop 2 failed to do). Terminator 2 cleverly recycles the Terminator premise by making Arnie the good cyborg in this film. It also has the courage to make Sarah Connor the focus if the story - and to develop her character considerably from the first film. Connor is no longer the hapless-victim-cum-accidental-hero; she now has the knowledge and power to drive her own destiny. With cutting-edge CGI, which still looks amazingly fresh, this is one of those rare sequels that is better that the original (some argue that Cameron pulled off the same trick with Aliens). Attempts by the next two Terminator films (Rise of the Machines [2003] and Salvation [2009] to shift the narrative emphasis onto John Connor are reversed to a degree in Genisys (2015), which is clearly aimed at fans of the Sarah Connor who emerges in T2:JD.
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Robotrix [aka: Nu ji xie ren] (Jamie Luk, Hong Kong, 1991)
Not an entirely serious recommendation, this entry, starring Hong Kong's famous Amy Yip, pretty much does what it says on the tin: girly robots. A good example of the 'sexploitation' sub-genre (taken to its zenith/nadir by RoboGeisha, 2009), this is barely disguised soft-porn, complete with gratuitous sex and nudity. An advanced robot takes the body and personality of a female police detective - and then takes her clothes off. A silly film, but notable for its science fiction references, including: the clear influence of artist Hajime Sorayama's erotic robots (see here), a nod to Metropolis in the gynoid transformation sequence, and the Tetsuo-style (1989) death of the villain. It is dubbed into English via a terrible script. However, this is not the only example of female robots used as an excuse for sex and nudity, see also: Cherry 2000 (1987), Dr Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965), Galaxina (1980), and of course Metropolis.
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Tank Girl (Rachel Talalay, USA, 1995)
This is a film that you really want to like. It promises to be fun, witty, sexy, and just a little bit 'on the edge' - like the British comic-strip that it's taken from. Unfortunately, Tank Girl falls well short of its potential - and even the promise of its own title sequence. This is probably because it tries a little too hard to be funny and quirky - from its opening voice-over through its OTT performances, to the silly action climax. The inter-cut comic-strip sequences are effective, but they also remind us of Tank Girl's provenance, and that live-action comic-strip is hard to pull off. The drawn exploits are likely to be far more outrageous than anything shown on film. The result here is a watered-down, humourless comedy, attempting to ride a populist wave of feisty genre females. Disappointing fare from a female director. Writer, Tedi Sarafian, went on to better work with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. And twenty years after Tank Girl, her post-apocalyptic female fighter spirit was raised in George Miller's far more successful Mad Max: Fury Road.
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Star Trek: First Contact (Jonathan Frakes, 1996)
Whilst Alice Krige's Borg Queen role is firmly rooted in a tradition which goes back to Le Voyage Dans La Lune, First Contact does show that in 1996 it could still be done really well. Part of the strength of this character (apart from Krige's well-judged, deliciously evil performance) is the fact that she has a motive. The Borg Queen is given something to do and some (fairly) intelligent lines to speak. Alfre Woodward also has a role with something extra: she is a rocket engineer - a female 'hard' scientist (see The Abyss note above). ST:FC may feel like just a bigger version of the TV show - and in many ways it is - but it does a little more for female representation than most in the genre. Perhaps Roddenberry's egalitarian utopia is finally becoming a reality...? For an answer to that question, see Star Trek (2009) below.
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The Sticky Fingers of Time (Hilary Brougher, Spain, 1997)
With a growing gay following, this has been billed as a 'lesbian science fiction film' - but not by its writer/director, Brougher, who has approached the subject as a straight-forward serious genre effort. The dubious title may not have helped her cause here, but titles aside, this is an entertaining film. Made on a low budget, but not quite the shoestring of Born In Flames, this film attempts many of the same things as Lizzie Borden's film. At its root is a kind of artistic, feminist guerrilla warfare, aimed squarely at male-dominated medium. Whether it grows beyond this to create something original is debatable, but the attempt is laudable.
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The Fifth Element (Luc Besson, France, 1997) [**contains plot-spoiler(s)]
This film succeeds where Barbarella, Tank Girl and Danger: Diabolik (1968) did not. It takes comic-strip elements (though not an actual comic-strip here) and melds them with witty dialogue and brilliant visuals to create a genuinely entertaining science fiction film. Contributing to this success are a straight (as opposed to comic) performance from Bruce Willis, some large (barely restrained) supporting performances, and of course the quirky brilliance of Milla Jovovich as Leeloo. It is true that this female role relies greatly on traditional representation - adding nudity to the outrageous costumes and naive sexuality of Barbarella - but somehow this film gets away with it. It can even be forgiven for its corny 'the-fifth-element-is-love' climax. Besson's firm grip on the humour and the science fiction elements allows him to sail close to the wind. Like Star Trek: First Contact, The Fifth Element does the traditions and stereotypes really well. Perhaps an acceptance of this is an indication that the genre has come of age.
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Contact (Robert Zemeckis, USA, 1997) [**contains plot-spoiler(s)]
Robert Zemeckis' previous big science fiction film offering, Back to the Future (1985), offered some fairly thankless female roles; Contact goes some way towards making up for it. Carl Sagan's SETI scientist (for the original novel) was reputedly based on the real-life American astronomer, Dr Jill Cornell Tarter, director of the SETI research centre. Jodie Foster here plays the radio astronomer driven since childhood by her desire to capture radio messages from further and further afield - and ultimately to communicate with her dead father. Her passion and determination eventually lead her to discover a message from what appears to be an alien civilization. The story gets a little silly from there, with the usual male political and scientific obstacles set to hinder Foster's progress. However, a woman driving a science fiction narrative in any form is still a rare event - and worth watching here.
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Alien Resurrection (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, USA, 1997)
1997 was a vintage year for women in science fiction film. To top it all, Ripley was back in a film which represents a culmination of female development through the genre. Alien Resurrection marks the point at which the franchise became fully self-aware - smart enough to wink back at itself; strong enough to turn the genre on its head. The mothership computer has become 'father'; Ian Holm's android has turned into Winona Ryder's sympathetic gynoid, Call, with witty lines like: "I burned my modem, we all did"; and Ripley has become the alien's mother. Full circle. Some argue that the series has descended here into space opera, and in a way it has. It's only a matter of time before the aliens are loose onboard and then it's a game of 'spot the victim': the black, the white, the woman, the man, the gay, the disabled, the alien. Ripley has drawn enough strength from the last three films to reach a point where she can do whatever she wants: she now IS the narrative, everything else is peripheral - even the alien. We don't question her gender, but we hardly recognise it either; the feminist dream has become an androgynous nightmare. When Call takes over the ship's computer and intones "Father's dead, asshole", she is only partly right. Father was dead for a while, but this film is a clarion call for his return. It's not modems that are being burned here; it's bridges.
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The Matrix (Andy & Larry Wachowski, USA/Australia, 1999)
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Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Jonathan Mostow, USA, 2003)
It's tempting for those who like to criticise these things to see the naked Kristanna Loken near the beginning of this film as gratuitous; however, let's not forget Arnold Schwarznegger's nudity in other Terminator films. Loken's witty arrival in the window of a fashion shop - amid the female mannequins - signals some of the self-awareness seen in Alien Resurrection. T3 is notable of course for the fact that cyborg is now female - faster and stronger than Arnie's clunky old male version. But perhaps more interesting is the fact that the story has moved away from Sarah Connor and onto John Connor - who acquires a female sidekick in the form of Clare Danes. The slick-witted dialogue shows a franchise now mature enough to laugh at itself (as we saw with Alien Resurrection), but sexy robots and female assistants suggest a slide back towards the traditions of female representation which opened the first Terminator film.
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Star Wars: Clone Wars (Dave Filoni, USA, 2008)
When George Lucas came to make a sequel to Star Wars in the late 1970s, he was careful to respond to criticism that the original film had no black human faces. As a result, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) co-stars Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian. Not a token black, but a good actor in a decent role. However, it took six films and another 30 years for the saga to respond to its lack of interesting female characters. And this is it: the insufferable trainee Jedi (Padawan) Ahsoka Tano, voiced by Ashley Eckstein. A token female. Animated (in more ways than one), disobedient and cute, Ahsoka is clearly designed as a mischievous reference point for a youth market. And perhaps that's all we should expect her to be. Perhaps we should stop looking for meaningful female roles in a saga which is essentially an extended Freudian Oedipal redemption (fairy)tale about boys and their father figures.
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The Time Traveler's Wife (Robert Schwentke, USA, 2009)
A caption card in the theatrical trailer for Destination Moon (1950) entices the feminist-minded viewer with the line: "Never before has any woman..."; the promise of female derring-do hangs for a moment, until dashed by the following card: "...sent her man on such an exploit!". Sixty years later, The Time Traveler's Wife appears to be doing the same thing (cf. The Astronaut's Wife, 1999), except that Rachel McAdams' Clare doesn't do any sending. Her man just goes. There are some interesting moments when Clare's greater knowledge makes it appear that she is the time traveler, but beyond this the film generally takes Henry's line - eschewing the shared perspectives of Audrey Niffnegger's well-received novel. But perhaps this film should simply be taken for what it is: a celluloid tone poem; a love story through time. Like Groundhog Day (1993) [of which, more here], it offers no explanation for its fantastical element, and so, like Groundhog Day, The Time Traveler's Wife may not be science fiction at all.
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Star Trek (J. J. Abrams, USA/Germany, 2009)
In her biography, 'Beyond Uhura', Nichelle Nicholls complains about the ethos of the first Star Trek movie, The Motion Picture in 1979: "I really disliked the bland unisex approach, not simply because it was unattractive, but that it just wasn’t Uhura". Nicholls got her way in-part, eventually bringing her own brand of sexy, sassy strength to her role in the remaining films, despite always playing second-fiddle in the male molodrama. Nicholls must surely then have been pleased with the casting of Zoë Saldana for this film: her beauty, talent and attitude (and skirts) doing justice to the famous character in J.J. Abrams updated (rebooted) prequel to the classic series. But what a missed opportunity. Again. All the men - even Sulu - get to be heroes in this movie; Uhura gets to be... Spock's girlfriend. In the circumstances, a disappointingly familiar take on an iconic role.
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Avatar (James Cameron, USA/UK, 2009) [For more on James Cameron's female characters, see Dean's essay here]
Zoe again. This time without the umlaut - and most of her clothes. What is there to say about Avatar? Billions taken at the box office for a story that could have been sketched on the back of a cigarette packet. But that's not the point. This is not a film, it's an event. 3-D, 2-D, IMAX, HD, Blu-Ray: this is the future of commercial $inema. As a result, the characters, both male and female, are lost in a maelstrom of convention and stereotype. And they must be, for not even Cameron - veteran of such science fiction icons as Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor - can fight the expectations of the money men and women. Sigourney Weaver is here, but even she struggles to make an impression against the onslaught of pandoran pixels.
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Tron Legacy (Joseph Kosinski, USA, 2010)
The advanced ‘test footage’ for this film, unveiled at Comic-Con 2009, focuses on the new design of the iconic light cycles. Their male riders are secondary to the graphics - and women are entirely absent. Female presence is extended slightly in the first official trailer, with the black-rubber clad Quorra (Olivia Wilder) and Siren Jem (Beau Garrett) in a white rubber costume designed to accentuate her (3D) breasts. Neither woman speaks, but their combined 3 seconds of screen time (in a 141 second trailer) is enough to suggest a dangerous sexuality and a function primarily of sexual enticement. And so it proves in the film: female sirens, fetishised through action as well as visual and vocal references to the classic femme fatale. A bit of a waste really.
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Prometheus (Ridley Scott, USA/UK, 2012)
There's no role for Weaver or Ripley in this prequel to Alien; however, Swedish actor Noomi Rapace plays the proto-Ripley character, Dr Elizabeth Shaw. Not guns and attitude, but a strong character all the same. Or at least she would be if this film were anything more than a series of tired old themes, images and tropes (religion, corporate power, colonialism, 2001:ASO, etc.) clunkily shoe-horned into an attempt to garner new Alien audiences while still appealling to die-hard fans; i.e. all the ambition and none of the panache of Star Trek (2009). OK, Charlize Theron's Meredith Vickers is nominally in charge of the mission and Raplace's scientist does drive bits of the narrative, it's just that the narrative is not really worth driving. Ridley Scott's contribution to the development of women's roles in science fiction film is unquestioned, but it's not built upon here. Time now for some new ideas; let's hope they come in the sequel to this prequel.
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Star Trek Into Darkness (J.J. Abrams, USA, 2013)
When franchise fans are as attentive as those of Star Trek, attempting to tie historic threads together without pedantic complaints is a big ask. This may be why the first of these prequels (Star Trek) established an alternative timeline: writers may now do what they want with already established characters. So how do the women fare in this brave new world? Alice Eve's Dr Carol Marcus role (first seen in 1982, played by Bibi Besch) is defined by her status as the daughter an eminent male character and she appears on publicity material in her underwear - both of which tie her back to the beginnings of the genre. Zoë (umlaut reinstated) Saldana's Uhura is still Spock's girlfriend, but she does at least get to save his life this time. To be fair, the entire film is cliché-ridden with too little narrative complexity and character development coupled with too much CGI and fighting. In view of this, it may seem unfair to single the women out for criticism, as all these traits serve to highlight the modern genre's increasing reliance on stereotype and spectacle.
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Elysium (Neil Blomkamp, UK, 2013) [**contains plot-spoiler(s)]
Alice Braga is very good as the young mother, Frey, in Blomkamp's first film since the excellent District 9 (2009). Sadly, her role here doesn't stretch her at all. Jodie Foster's space station security chief, Delacourt, is a more promising prospect, as she snarls, schemes and manoeuvres her way to to the top of the Machiavellian heirarchy - but these are not yet Elysian Fields for the female science fiction character. Some points should be awarded to Blomkamp for introducing a 'woman of power', which was largely missing from District 9, and there is some attempt to allow the female to drive the narrative. However, much of the energetic drive of this film is still created by the men: Matt Damon's action hero vs. Sharlto Copley's comic-book villain. This would matter less if Delacourt had fought for her life; instead, she just gives up and lets the men take over - not unlike the woman in the next film...
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Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, UK, 2013) [**contains plot-spoiler(s)]
From its billing, it was clear that this was always going to be a showcase movie: one of the genre's state-of-the-cinema-art pieces. Indeed, the result lingers part-way between Destination Moon (1950) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), with a touch of 'Marooned' (1969) and Apollo 13 (1995) thrown in. The pre-screening question from the perspective of this commentator was this: with Sandra Bullock's Hollywood clout giving her pick of the project crop, was this going to be the best female-in-science-fiction role since Ripley? The short answer proved to be "no". In an interview with the The Daily Telegraph, director and co-writer Cuarón states that "The studio told me very early that nobody wanted to see a film set in space that stars a woman ... But you know, it's something I didn't even question..." (UK, 13 Dec. 2013, p.33). This seems promising, until we see Bullock's hapless heroine, Dr Ryan Stone, getting flung around from crisis to crisis with barely a clue about what to do - eventually escaping back to Earth by accident. Knowledge resides almost exclusively with George Clooney's Commander Matt Kowalski, who even re-appears post-mortem in a fantasy sequence to save her again after she has given up. The female may have more presence here than in those other 'showcase' films, but she has scarcely any more significance or point. Add all this to psychological demons that would have debarred Stone from going to space with NASA in the first place and we're left with a chaotic car-wreck of a character. A disappointment to those of us who had hoped for more.
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Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, UK, 2013)
This is a sort of Species (1995) meets The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) Indeed, the director is on record stating his debt to Nicolas Roeg, who is here in the detached nature of both the cinematography and the alien (cf. David Bowie). Along with Species, this film joins the likes of Unearthly Stranger (1963), Queen of Blood (1966), Spermula (1976), Lifeforce (1985), My Stepmother is an Alien (1988) and many other examples of tales of female aliens who arrive on Earth to prey on humans. Glazer's film is more artistic than most - its stately manner evoking a kind of tick-follows-tock-follows-tick-follows-tock, as if waiting for the perfect pint of Guinness; however, like so many of its forbears, it relies on its female lead to be sexy, sexual, alluring and predatory - and naked. This piece does have more to say than others in its class: Scarlet Johansson's alien learns to respect her prey as people, as she discovers more about the human body she is inhabiting - and more about humanity itself. Whether character arcs and cinematic art are enough to justify this film's voyeuristic love of the female form is another matter. Debates will rage. In this respect, Under the Skin is similar to the next film in this list.
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Lucy (Luc Besson, France/USA, 2014)
Ms. Johansson again. It seems that we may have entered a new 'Golden Age' for women in science fiction film. It's hard to tell from the inside, but judging by the number of films being carried along by the female narrative - rather than just having strong women - this may be a space worth watching. Of course, Luc Besson has form in this area, not least The Fifth Element. In Lucy, Scarlett Johansson plays a drugs mule who accidentally ingests a new, synthetic compound to become omniscient and omnipotent - and making it feel initially like Limitless (2011) or even Johnny Mnemonic (1995). Lucy gets silly, of course (it has the obligatory frenetic third-act chase sequence), but it succeeds where Her (Spike Jonze, 2013, and another Johansson picture) failed: Besson, as so often in his films, manages here to trigger that crucial science fiction viewer response - the willing suspension of disbelief.
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Ex Machina (Alex Garland, UK/USA, 2015) [**contains plot-spoiler(s)]
When New Scientist magazine (#3005, pp.44/5) praises your film with the words "Everything about this movie is good", you can be sure that your science is pretty solid. Indeed, cognitive and computational professor Anil Seth's article states that this "...is a better film for its engagement with current theories about the meaning of consciousness". Add to this great cinematography, stylish visuals, intelligent dialogue, good acting, and an understated confident calm not seen since Moon (2009), and science fiction appears to be in good hands. The problem for this commentator is the objectification of the female characters - all gynoids. In an interview for BBC Radio 4's Film Programme (22 Jan. 2015) writer/director Alex Garland suggests that his film's use of pretty, young, female robots is a comment on society's expectations about A.I. and that the challenge for us is to see beyond these tropes. It is true that this is a recurring theme in science fiction cinema, back through Terminator 3 (2003), Blade Runner (1982), Dr Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965) and many others to Metropolis (1926), but whether Ex Machina's lingering gaze at Alicia Vikander's naked body towards the end of the film is an ironic statement about femininity or just good, old-fashioned, commercial scopophilia remains - like the 'strip' sequence at the end of Alien (1979) - a question for debate.
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Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, Australia/USA, 2015)
If it's the gamut of female representation that you're looking for, this may be the film for you. Here is nudity, grannies on dirt-bikes, a kick-ass amputee and sex slaves - the latter in various shades of hair-colour and skin-tone. It's almost as if the enlightened male writers had thought, "It's Mad Max. What do we do about the women? I know, let's have one of each". Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) had not been entirely successful with Tina Turner as Auntie Entity, a sort post-apocalyptic pantomime damenatrix. Since then, the genre has thrown up a variety of prominent females, with varying success. Fury Road's writers could have taken the Ghostbusters (2016) re-gender route, introducing 'Mad Maxine' and picking up where Tank Girl (1995) failed; instead, they have dropped Charlize Theron's furious fighter into Max's post-apocalyptic nightmare, with all those other women around her - and it works! Aaron Clarey disagrees. He complains that Fury Road is "the Trojan horse feminists and Hollywood leftists will use to (vainly) insist on the trope women are equal to men in all things, including physique, strength, and logic" [sic]. The jury may be still be out on that, but consider this: even here, one the toughest of the genre's females is still given a diminutive name, Furiosa.
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Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, USA, 2015) [**contains plot-spoiler(s)]
The original Star Wars saga was not traditionally noted for its positive development of female roles; George Lucas relied too much on fairy-tale tropes for that. The limited development of the Uhura role in director Abrams' 2009 reboot of Star Trek set against new Lucasfilm owner Disney's recent track record with feisty fairy-tale females made it difficult to guess what would come to pass in this much-anticipated Star Wars sequel. What we get in this re-tread of the 1977 original is Rey, Daisy Ridley's slightly rougher, slightly tougher Luke Skywalker clone. What we don't get is the layered, drawn-out development that made Luke a much-loved and believable figure. In just three reels, Rey masters elements of the force that it took Luke three films to grasp. There is little room to breathe here, as the The Force Awakens races through its formulaic plot points and in-joke gags. The result has little of the emotional development required for rounded characters - and this includes Rey. It may be worth noting in passing that the leader of the stormtroopers is female (Captain Phasma, played by a chrome-masked Gwendoline Christie) and Princess (General) Leia seems now to be in charge of the new rebel army, but these are token roles. The key events of The Force Awakens confirm that Star Wars is still a saga about boys and their fathers - until, perhaps, that final scene...
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Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, USA, 2016)
If you watch enough films in any genre, there's a fair chance that you'll recognise certain concepts, themes and tropes as they come round again - and again. And so, it proves here, for as Arrival's female-framed narrative deftly explores the cyclical nature of life and time, its science fiction art conjures memories of past essays on alien/woman contact. Indeed, Contact is here, along with The Abyss, Starman, The Day the Earth Stood Still and others; all cast their shadow on this impressive effort, led by Amy Adams in a strong, award-winning performance, as linguist, Dr Louise Banks. As one of the most satisfying, rounded 21st century female science fiction characters, she is attractive without being objectified, smart without being obnoxious, and flawed without being undermined. However, in order to pull this trick off, Arrival must still lean on some of the stalwarts of the genre: and so, Dr Louise Banks is a mediator (see Metropolis), a 'soft scientist' (see The Abyss), and a mother - science fiction cinema's default position. Despite what Hollywood Reporter calls "brains and originality", it would seem that, even in the best the genre has to offer, female representation has its limitations.
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Felicity Jones Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Gareth Edwards, USA, 2016)
The original Star Wars was criticised for its lack of diversity on screen, stretching as it does little further than an Asian X-Wing pilot and the voice of Darth Vader (which has itself drawn criticism). In direct response, Lando Calrissian was added to The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Billy Dee Williams easily earned his place on that film, and the franchise gradually became home to a range of identities, including: Black generals, alien teachers, female leaders, and pilots of all types. In Rogue One, the journey to the diverse side is complete - just about. Once again, we have a female lead: Felicity Jones' Jyn Erso. Her journey though Rogue One is not as obvious a hack as Rey's re-tread of Luke Skywalker's for The Force Awakens, but it is familiar (an orphaned child initially refusing the call to fight the Empire, then saving the day after a reconciliation with the father). That's not surprising, as Luke's journey is itself a distillation of the traditional hero myths identified by Joseph Campbell and others. Women are now getting a good swing at the old stories, but perhaps one day there will be room for their own.
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Carrie Fisher Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, USA, 2017) [**contains plot-spoiler(s)]
Rogue One was supposed to be a 'stand-alone' Star Wars story (more accurately, a fill-in-the-gaps Star Wars story); however, with respect to female roles, Part VIII, The Last Jedi follows more naturally on from that film, rather than from Part VII, The Force Awakens. There are women everywhere in this film: in control rooms, on bridges, flying X-wings, running rebel bases. The key leaders of the rebellion are women, and Captain Phasma, the female leader of the stormtroopers, is back with a vengeance - literally. However, these inclusions often feel like shoe-horned-in responses to earlier criticism by fans and critics of earlier movies. Ironically, the changes feel like they have come too thick and fast to be credible. In the meantime, Rey continues on her journey to replicate Luke's experience through the original trilogy (learning from the master, failing in the dark cave, visiting the emperor, attempting to turn the evil one, firing laser cannons on the Falcon, &c., &c.). Equally ironically, this now feels like the changes are coming too thinly veiled and too slow. What The Last Jedi really is is a farewell to Carrie Fisher, who died in December 2016. And why shouldn't it be? After all, in 1977, she set a million male hearts racing - an integral member of a troupe that made a generation fall in love with science fiction cinema. Even Ripley owes something to George Lucas' sexy, feisty, inspirational princess: "into the garbage shute, Flyboy!". Rest in peace, Carrie Fisher - Actor, Writer, Artist, Princess.
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Letitia Wright Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, USA, 2018)
Its 95% non-white cast, and evocative (or provocative) title, will mark Black Panther out in some circles as a 'politically correct', token reaction to long-entrenched hegemonic values. In reality, this is more a celebration of black cultures than a call to arms. Yes, there are jibes at the white folk, but nothing to take offence at, and nothing particularly nasty or needlessly vindictive. The message here is largely positive. Over-reliance on frenetic CGI aside, this film glories in its hybrid mise en scène: science fiction sets infused with tribal motifs; technology-rich costumes with African aesthetics; and a panoply of lithe, beautiful people of colour, framed as humanity's secret weapon. Crucial to Black Panther's impact is a core of female players in prominent roles: a strong mother, a sassy lover, warrior women, capable pilots, a brilliant scientist, and more. Letitia Wright's Shuri - a kind of one-woman 'Q Branch' for the modern age - may seem a little too young for this techno-genius role, but at no time does she appear 'too black' or 'too female'. There are no token roles or players here. And yet, Black Panther is ultimately another science fiction film about men and their fathers, and that will always restrict the impact of the female roles. Black control of the narrative makes this a landmark film for race in Hollywood; lack of control of the narrative once again leaves women with a little further left to go. The fight is not over yet.
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The Golden Era
Looking back, the years between 1979 and 1997 seem to have been a 'golden age' for women in science fiction cinema. Not just because Ripley led the way with guns, guts and attitude, but because her success in this most 'male' of realms blurred the distinctions between masculine and feminine, opening more roles to women generally.

The era promised so much, but eventually the forces of commercial cinema encroached again. The budgets got bigger, forcing risk-averse producers to retreat towards conservative representation. And not just for women. Female roles have come and gone; a few of these should perhaps be added to this page, but nothing really jumps out with the impact of the characters and titles listed above.

Commercial Considerations
The plethora of 21st century science fiction remakes, sequels and prequels points to a fear of the new and a reluctance to take chances. The last decade promised some big science fiction events, but many of these still felt familiar - and often failed to materialise. Roland Emmerich's 2012 is another Roland Emmerich disaster movie; in Predators (2010), humans land on a planet to discover that it's infested with aliens; and Pandorum (2009) tells the story of humans waking from cryo-sleep to find their spaceship infested with aliens. This last film comes complete with its own Ripley character. Of course, James Cameron's Avatar goes one better than Pandorum by featuring Sigourney Weaver herself (not as Ripley) as an eco-scientist on the alien world of... Pandora.

With a slew of US science fiction sequels and remakes apparently in the pipeline (The Black Hole, Soylent Green, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Buck Rogers, When Worlds Collide, Short Circuit, Logan's Run, Dune, and RoboCop, I,Robot), the industry still seems to be looking backwards. Even the promised versions of Lem's The Futurological Congress and Asimov's Foundation have an 'old sci-fi' feel to them. Alfonso Cuarón's response to the producers of Gravity (see quote above) was promising, but even he felt the need to root Sandra Bullock's character in an old-style, hapless, helpless-female mold. She's hardly a poster girl for a feminist revolution. And she's certainly not Ripley. Women have obviously come on a long journey since 1902 and Le Voyage dans la Lune, but for a while the glories of 1979-1997 have seemed light years away.

A New Golden Era?
The early 21st century science fiction cinema landscape was arguably rather fallow for women; however, things may be shifting slowly for the better. As suggested above, Scarlett Johansson seems to have led a one-woman revival, playing interesting lead characters in a number of films. As with Ex Machina, stronger roles for women tended to be in smaller, less-expensive - and so, less commercially risky - productions; however the Oscar nominated Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) has suggested that female toughness and skill can go hand-in-hand with a larger budget. Indeed, even the behemoths that are The Force Awakens, Rogue One and The Last Jedi attempt to put women front and centre - albeit in old stories. The results of this apparent shift so far are promising, but patchy...

Ridley Scott has announced plans to turn Alien into a franchise "as big as Star Wars". Whether that happens remains to be seen, but judging by Alien: Covenant, this may rest on the thing that gave Ripley her strength in the first place: the egalitarian, ensemble cast. In the meantime, War for the Planet of the Apes did nothing to improve the lot of women, except to resurrect the character of Nova, almost mute and in the form of teenager Amiah Miller. Blade Runner 2049 resurrected Sean Young's Rachel character from the original, but quickly shot her through the head, leaving this sequel to the 1982 classic to focus once again on male angst. Wonder Woman was the surprise fantasy hit of 2017, and although it may not be science fiction (whatever that is), it will be interesting to see if the success of Gal Gadot's portrayal, and Patty Jenkins' direction, of this iconic role filters through to other fantasy and science fiction projects - for example, the Joss Whedon penned Batgirl. Avatar is slated for a return, and that already had strong(ish) females in the shape of Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver. Both are in the latest Avatar 2 cast list.

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