The question in e-mail I’m considering today: So, who is the best female character in science fiction film?
The answer to this is easy: It’s Ellen Ripley, from the Alien films. It’s not even close. And that’s kind of a very bad thing.
But let’s get to that later. First, let’s go down the list of why Ellen Ripley is the best female character in science fiction film. To begin:
She’s not a sidekick, arm candy, or a damsel to be rescued. Starting with Alien, Ripley was a fully competent member of a crew or ensemble — not always liked and sometimes disrespected, but doing her job all the same. As each film progresses, she comes to the fore and faces challenges head-on — she’s the hero of the piece, in other words.
But, you say, not every science fiction female character is an arm-candy sidekick who needs to be rescued! Sometimes they even kick ass! True, which brings us to the next point:
Ripley isn’t a fantasy version of a woman. Science fiction film is filled with hot kickass women doing impossible things with guns and melee weapons while they spin about like a gymnast in a dryer. As fun as that is to watch, at the end of the day it’s still giving women short shrift, since what they are then are idealized killer fembots rather than actual human beings. Ripley, on the other hand, is pushy, aggressive, rude, injured, suffering from post-traumatic syndrome, not wearing makeup, tired, smart, maternal, angry, empathetic, and determined to save others, even at great cost to herself. All without being a spinny killbot. The complexity of her character is good, because it means …
The character is strong enough to survive multiple screenwriters. Ripley was written by Dan O’Bannon, James Cameron, David Glier, Walter Hill, Larry Ferguson, and Joss Whedon. Each of them did varying things to the role, some of which would have probably destroyed a less strong character. But in each case — even in Alien: Resurrection, which tried really hard to mess with Ripley (and which, to be fair to Whedon, was substantially tinkered with on the script level by the director) — the fundamental sense of the character remained there: the same aggressive, smart, injured but determined nature that allows her to face demons in each film and stay ahead of them. Someone gets credit for that:
Ripley was lucky enough to be played by Sigourney Weaver. Weaver is one of the smartest actresses of her generation, which shows through in her performance. It also means she’s protective of her most famous role and perfectly willing to dig in her heels to get what she wants for the character, including being able to specify screenwriters (as she did for the third installment) and demanding particular scenes stay in the films (as she did for the fourth). An actress of less integrity (or at the very least one less stubborn) would have let filmmakers mess with the character more; Weaver didn’t and reaped the rewards with a role that stands not only as the best female character in science fiction film, but one of the best characters in film, period, full stop.
After Ellen Ripley, who else is there? Her closest female character competition is Sarah Connor, of the Terminator series, although her reputation for being tough, smart, and resourceful comes primarily from the second film, since in the first film what she mostly does is run and squeal. Some distance behind Sarah Connor is Princess Leia, who looks great on paper (a senator at 19! Leader of the rebellion! Feisty with Han Solo!) but who is woefully underwritten in every film she’s in except The Empire Strikes Back and who isn’t the focus of the series in any event. Neytiri from Avatar has her moments as well, which points out that three of the strongest female characters in science fiction film were written (or cowritten) by one man: James Cameron.
Then from there it’s a pretty long fall down to the spinny killbots, mostly played by Milla Jovovich. Some would stick up for Dana Scully, of the two X-Files films, but that character’s primary medium is television — which, as these things go, has done far better with strong female characters than film has (see: X-Files, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, the various later Star Trek series, etc). The science fiction films of 2011 haven’t offered us much in terms of genuinely remarkable female characters, nor did 2010’s; 2009 at least had a revamped Uhura in Star Trek, along with Neytiri.
And this is a problem for science fiction film. Yes, it gave us one of the best female film characters ever in Ellen Ripley. But having done so, it feels as if science fiction film makers other than James Cameron have said “our work here is done” and offered spinny killbots rather than significant women roles. Science fiction films and filmmakers can do better. Ripley’s run on the big screen is done. Time for other women characters to aim for her level.