After finishing my latest SF novel, Sparks in Cosmic Dust, which features three tough, resourceful heroines, I decided to go back and pinpoint the major influences on those characters. Most of them are movie heroines. Though there are some actresses/characters I like from 1950s SF, they’re very much in their heroes’ shadows, and the birth of the modern SF movie heroine didn’t really take place until the late 1970s. How many of my top ten would be on your list?
10. Quorra (Tron: Legacy, played by Olivia Wilde)/ Leeloo (The Fifth Element, played by Milla Jovovich) – Two super beings, two real-life supermodels who can act, two SF heroines whose mix of vulnerability and kickassery ensures guys and gals alike are kept glued to the screen. They both possess a child-like innocence and optimism, not to mention romantic allure for their heroes. Quorra is a cyber babe on the run; Leeloo is an elemental (and often naked) super babe. Their respective movies hinge on their secrets/survival, and I can’t help but *ahem* root for them all the way.
9. Melina (Total Recall, played by Rachel Ticotin)—A wildcat counterpart to Sharon Stone’s icy superbitch, Latino heroine Melina more than keeps pace with Arnie in this action rollercoaster. Her noirish introduction in the sleaziest brothel in Venusville, Mars, is femme fatale gold. From then on, she kicks, shoots, leaps and pouts her way into cinema history as one of the brassiest of all SF babes.
7. Neytiri (Avatar, played by Zoe Saldana)—Lithe, sexy and very, very blue, Neytiri’s alien heroine harks back to the classic Jungle Girl and alien princess characters of Edgar Rice Burroughs—the difference being, she can take care of herself. And boy, does she. Over the years, James Cameron has almost singlehandedly pushed movie action heroines into the 21st century, and here he went all native on us. Neytiri’s blend of fierceness and vulnerability is primal.
6. Trinity (The Matrix, played by Carrie-Ann Moss)—A cyber combat maestro. Deeply vulnerable at times. Trinity has all the attributes of Quorra/Leeloo as a prodigious super babe—also a romantic interest for the hero—but she isn’t naive at all. She’s world-weary but optimistic, sticking to her faith in the messianic hero while symbolizing everything that’s worth saving in humanity. We’re gobsmacked by her leather-clad cyber antics, then we fall in love with the hopeful glimmer in her eye in the grungy real-world. That earthiness added to the mix makes her a potent SF heroine.
5. Lindsey Brigman (The Abyss, played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio)—Lindsey’s unique on this list in that she’s more of an anti-heroine. Someone calls her “the queen bitch of the universe” near the start, and that view’s more or less unanimous. But as icy as she is, we know her ex-husband (Ed Harris) still loves her, and it’s that hope—that she’ll thaw (for him) and they’ll get back together in the end—that keeps us invested in her. Bit by bit, she makes good on that promise, saving the day more than once. And by the time we reach the SF finale, she’s achieved genuine poignancy. Brilliant actress. Brilliant film.
4. Sarah Connor (The Terminator, played by Linda Hamilton)—Linda Hamilton underwent an extraordinary transformation over the course of the first two Terminator films. From put-upon waitress to world-saving (and borderline psychotic) combat gal, she has been sharpened—and in some respects dehumanized—by her foreknowledge of a war that her son alone can win. In T2 in particular, it’s an extremely difficult role for an actress. Protectiveness, if that’s one’s only motivation, can become a cold, robotic mission. Arnie’s T-800 embodies that. But Sarah has to refind her maternal warmth, her humanity, to truly win back her son.
3. Princess Leia Organa (Star Wars, played by Carrie Fisher)—Slave bikini aside, Leia was surprisingly progressive for a SF heroine inspired by the serial damsels of the 30s/40s. Yes, she needed saving more than once during the trilogy, but she also got stuck in with the laser gun battles, and never gave an inch when it came to trading insults. She added a great deal of spunk to a traditionally screechy role. Carrie Fisher is naturally sharp and funny, so she was the perfect sparring partner for Harrison Ford’s roguish space pirate. And did I mention the slave bikini?
2. Ellie Arroway (Contact, played by Jodie Foster)—Like Al Pacino, Jodie Foster is usually the shortest and yet the biggest character in any room. Her forceful personality and bravura acting are unmissable. In Contact, she channels them into a driven, lonely woman bucking against the scientific community until, and indeed after, mankind receives its historic first alien message. It’s a spiritual journey for Ellie, but to get there she needs all of her determination. For cerebral SF heroines, no one else comes close. She’s admirable from start to finish.
1. Ellen Ripley (Aliens, played by Sigourney Weaver)—In Sigourney’s own words, Ripley’s “a survivor”, and that indomitable human instinct makes her a formidable foe for the deadly aliens, themselves single-minded and singularly evolved for that same purpose. In the first film, she relies on grit and luck to see her through. Her rekindled maternal fire becomes a force of nature at the end of Aliens, when she faces off against her nemesis, the alien queen. There are several iconic female characters on this list, but Ripley is the ultimate fully-fledged SF heroine—tough, vulnerable, resourceful, real. I think the last part has made her indelible…and unsurpassed.