Top 10 SF Movie Heroines

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.


Melina #9 SF Movie Heroine

8. Dizzy Flores (Starship Troopers, played by Dina Meyer)—While she’s very much the third wheel in the cheesy love story, Dizzy plays second fiddle to no one in the action stakes. She joins the Mobile Infantry and, like a ginger-haired GI Jane, doesn’t back down until she’s earned her stripes and her man in this battle-the-bugs SF extravaganza. Oh, and she showers with the blokes, too. Hoo-rah!

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.

Trinity #6 SF Movie 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.

Sarah Connor in T2

Sarah Connor #4 SF Movie Heroine

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.

Ripley in Aliens

Ripley #1 SF Movie Heroine


  1. Fantastic list, Robert, and I have to agree with all of them. Glad you put Ripley at the top 🙂 but I might have moved Sarah Connor up a notch or two. Why? The transformation you mentioned. While I think Leia and Ellie Arroway were great characters, Sarah’s ability to adapt to her situation time and again adds points for me.

    Oh, and one of my favorite/freakiest scenes was in The Abyss, when Lindsey had to inhale the fluid and drown herself. Yowza!

    1. Correction: Lindsey didn’t inhale the special fluid, she just drowned herself (tired brain!) which is even creepier!!!

    2. OMG yes! The drowning scene–classic nightmare stuff. The film kinda builds up to that point, and it’s gut-wrenching. I take your point about Sarah Connor…she’s a really complex character…if a tad too butch in T2 for me personally. I also like Lena Headey’s portrayal in the TV series.

      Maybe you should do a top 10 SF heroes, Cathy! See how they compare.

      1. My favorite part of T2 was when Sarah asked the psychologist how his leg was 🙂 I totally agree that Lena Headey was a kickin’ Sarah Connor. Like Ripley, she was a fab blend of warrior and mother. Hmmm…I seem to have a thing for that, don’t I?

        Sure, I’ll do a SF heroes list. Gives me a topic for next week 😉

  2. Great list, although once again I demonstrate my sci-fi fluffy-bunny-ness. I haven’t seen all of these movies. I absolutely agree with Ripley – I can’t believe she wouldn’t be number one on anyone’s list. And I thought Dizzy was awesome, too. Personally, I thought they were trying too hard with Trinity. Would I replace her with anyone else? Maybe, if I could come up with any others off the top of my head!

    1. LOL at sci-fi fluffy-bunny-ness! Any fan of Dizzy and Ripley has experienced hardcore SF action at its best. I’d definitely recommend The Abyss, KC, if you haven’t seen that one. It’s criminally underrated.

      Interesting point about Trinity. There was some serious male wish-fulfilment going on when they wrote her, that’s for sure. Did u know they offered Sean Connery the part of Morpheus at first? OAP kung fu anyone?

      1. Ha – you figured me out! The Abyss is one that I haven’t seen. And I heard that the success of The Matrix was why Sean Connery picked up The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (which IMO was a blight upon movies, even with the decent cast).

      2. LXG was a missed opportunity, yeah. I never read the original graphic novels but I loved the premise. Still have a soft spot for the movie–it has its charms.

  3. Great list. I’m a huge fan of the Abyss – though the end is overdone. Lyndsey is just awesome. She is also special in that she is the geeky heroine. She relies on smarts more than action. I’d have to add Alexa Wood of AVP.

    1. Good one, Charlie. I hated most of the characters in AVP, but Alexa Wood was a solid heroine–smart and feisty. Ripley-lite, yes…but so is everyone who tries to fill her shoes. Glad you like Lyndsey. She is indeed a total geek, and I think we warm to her when she shows her child-like side with the NTIs.

  4. I’ve watched all of those. Do I get a kickass heroine prize? I sooo should get one!
    Have you realized how many of the characters on your list were written by James Cameron? The man know how to write his heroines.

    I’d add Mace from Strange Days played by Angela Bassett. Love that character!

  5. The prize is yours, Ella! You’re a full-bird colonel of heroine kickassery. And you get further kudos by naming *another* James Cameron SF heroine (I think he only wrote the script for Strange Days, though). Great stuff. I haven’t seen that in years.

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