Science fiction has long been dominated by male protagonists to placate the mostly male audience. But times are a changin’. Some of the most outstanding science fiction of the 2010s featured women as either the protagonist or equal partners alongside a male counterpart. Spoilers ahead for these 2010 films. Links go to our RunPee family movie reviews.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Eric Heisserer, based on the story “Story of Your Life” written by Ted Chiang
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
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Let’s start with what I think is the very best science fiction movie of the decade: Arrival. Amy Adams plays Professor Louise Banks in this cerebral exploration of language and time. In no other genre than science fiction could a professor of linguistics, male or female, play the protagonist of a story.
The protagonist in Arrival is patient, smart, thoughtful. Let’s face it, those are qualities more associated with women than men. She doesn’t rush to conclusions; she doesn’t approach the problem to be solved with pre conceptions; and in the end, she doesn’t resort to violence — but contrarily, uses her intellect to avoid violence.
In short, she doesn’t try to be a woman in a man’s role.
That said, I think the best display of Professor Bank’s qualities is when her counterpart, Professor Ian Donnelly — played by Jeremy Renner — makes a crucial discovery that helps solve the translation puzzle. Bank’s doesn’t show any signs of resistance to a new idea; nor does she resist an idea that isn’t her own; she even recognizes Ian discovered something before he tells her, and is genuinely excited at the prospect.
If the genders had been switched between Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, and it was the female, Professor Banks, who discovered the key that unravels the puzzle, then this is the part of the story where the female would have to do something heroic just so her idea could be recognized by the male.
I’m not just saying this to be critical of men. When trying to solve a problem I can absolutely recognize the tendency to resist changing direction. Sometimes there’s a feeling of mental momentum that builds up, and trying to stop it and change course requires effort. (Picture cartoon here of man driving, not knowing where he is or where he’s going, but stubbornly determined to continue driving, while ignoring the input of the woman in the passenger’s seat with a map.)
Arrival also brilliantly explores how a woman, Louis, can handle making the fantastically painful choice to have a child she knows will die young. Yet, before her child dies, they will have love and memories to last a lifetime. Ian, her husband, leaves her, because he isn’t strong enough to handle the emotional pain Louis embraces.
I don’t want to suggest women have always taken a back seat to men as protagonists in science fiction. Linda Hamilton, as Sarah Connor in Terminator, and Sigourney Weaver, as Ellen Ripley in Aliens, have played powerful women protagonists, as have many other women in science fiction. However, those characters lean heavily on women thrust into traditionally masculine roles: violence.
The real beauty of Arrival is that a female character, in a military setting, uses her intellect to avoid violence.
Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Writer: Nacho Vigalondo
Stars: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis
I know what you’re thinking: Colossal? I’ve never heard of it.
I know, right? I was right there with you until a few months ago. Colossal was in and out of theaters without so much as a “boo.” It couldn’t have been a wide release movie or we would have done Peetimes for it.
Yet here we are. Colossal is one of those movies I love telling people to watch. Don’t look for the trailer on YouTube; don’t look it up on IMDb; just try your best to watch it without knowing anything at all about it and enjoy.
It’s on my list here of great science fiction movies of the past decade, so you already have a hint, but I guarantee you, you won’t see it coming.
Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis are both fantastic in their roles — but I’m not going to say anything more than that. You’ll understand when you see it.
Director: Luc Besson
Writer: Luc Besson
Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman
Okay, I’ll admit it: Lucy isn’t exactly great science fiction. It’s more like guilty pleasure science fiction. It’s a little like the movie Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper, except that it goes to infinity.
What makes Lucy so enjoyable is Scarlett Johansson’s performance. Going from a directionless young woman to, basically, a god, in the span of a day.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Director: Doug Liman
Writers: Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth
Stars: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt
This is one of my all time favorite science fiction movies, and among the best of the Groundhog genre. Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt co-star in this movie. However, when the backstory is considered, it’s Emily Blunt’s character, Rita, who is the hero. She’s the one who went through the temporal loop first and figured it out. And she’s the one who mentors Tom Cruise’s initially cowardly character, Private Cage. It only looks like Tom Cruise is the main character because of the point of view the story is told from.
Okay, they can be co-heroes. But still, Rita is the one who saves the day, twice.
Director: John Krasinski
A Quiet Place (2018)
Writers: Bryan Woods, Scott Beck
Stars: Emily Blunt, John Krasinski
As long as we’re talking about Emily Blunt, let’s not forget how outstanding her performance was in A Quiet Place. Her character, Evelyn Abbott, wasn’t the hero of the story. Akin to Signs, every member of the family was the hero.
Bonus, we get A Quiet Place 2 — and thank you for not trying to be cute and name it A Quieter Place — on March 20, 2020.
Director: Spike Jonze
Writer: Spike Jonze
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson
Yeah, yeah, I know this is a stretch. Joaquin Phoenix is the protagonist. But this is my list and I’m going to argue its merits for inclusion. It’s science fiction at its best and it explores (soon to be) the very real experience that millions, perhaps billions, of humans will encounter: what to do when we fall in love with an artificial intelligence (AI).
I have to start by saying how masterfully Scarlett Johansson voices Samantha — the AI. I would fall in love with my Google Voice too if it had Scarlett’s voice. There’s no doubt that Joaquin Phoenix is a generational talent. However, his performance would have felt contrived if the AI he falls in love with didn’t do such a great job communicating the nuances of emotions through voice alone.
Aside: Have you ever noticed how rare it is that a woman narrates a documentary? It seems like the choices are Morgan Freeman, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Richard Attenborough, or any other man with a British accent. I can’t even think of a scientific documentary that’s voiced by a woman. But would someone please put Scarlett Johansson to work narrating? Her voice soothes like freshly baked bread slathered in butter. I could listen to it all day.
Ex Machina (2014)
Director: Alex Garland
Writer: Alex Garland
Stars: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac
Maybe you think the inclusion Ex Machina is a bigger stretch to add to this list than Her. Granted there are no women in this movie: just two men and two AI/robots: Ava and the speechless Kyoko. While the AI have the shape of female figures — for less than research purposes — the AI use those shapes, and the effect they have on the two men, to their advantage.
When you think about it, it’s really quite brilliant. The AI Ava uses everything it knows of women and men as tools to plan her escape. She manipulates both men with such subtlety that Caleb believes he has successfully thwarted her plan only to find out that was actually part of her ultimate plan.
We could be here all day talking about the nuances of what this implies, but I think the big takeaway here is that each person’s deep seated values around gender attributes is something that other humans, and soon AI, can use to manipulate us. We all know this is true because no demographic is more easily manipulated than young men by sexy women. Want to sell more of anything? Just picture a sexy woman holding your product, or better yet, draped over it, and sales will increase. You think that won’t be the first thing AI recognize and use to their own advantage as soon as they have the will to do so?
Also worth mentioning:
I don’t consider superhero movies to be science fiction, however I must give a nod to the addition of Captain Marvel in the MCU.
I’m personally not a fan of Brie Larson in the titular role. I think Blake Lively would have been a better choice, but be that as it may, introducing a powerful female superhero is important for the growth of not only the MCU franchise, but also our culture. It saddens me that grown men reacted to Brie Larson with such animosity over her stance on women’s rights. But at the very least, this exposes a problem that these men need to work toward getting over, because we’re not going back to the culture they crave of women beholden to men to give them value.
At the same time that Captain Marvel is being heralded as the new age of powerful women in superhero films, we already had one in Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow. Natasha’s sacrifice was every bit as crucial to the resolution of Avengers: Endgame as was Iron Man’s. Yet, I don’t see in-universe acknowledgement in the same way. I really hope that during Phase IV of the MCU there are reminders that Iron Man wasn’t the only one to make the ultimate sacrifice to defeat Thanos.
Lastly, I do not remotely consider Star Wars to be science fiction. However, if you ask me, the only good thing about the Star Wars trilogy of 2010s was the female protagonist. I wrote a lengthy article about how women rated Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker higher than men. And in particular, women under 20 had the highest rating of any age group for either gender.
Way back in the 1960s, the television series Star Trek broke new ground in creating an all inclusive cast, while still pandering to white entitlement. There’s little doubt that if Captain Kirk were in the captain’s chair today he’d probably face multiple counts of sexual harassment. But, at least there was an African-American female bridge officer, along with Asian and Russian men.
It’s clear that the future of all movie franchises will lean heavily on not only creating a balance between male and female protagonists but also reaching a balance in races and sexual orientations. Marvel has already announced that there will be multiple characters added in Phase IV and beyond who are on the LGBTQ spectrum.
We’ve come a long way as a culture, but clearly we’re not “there,” yet — and who even knows what “there” even looks like.
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Aspiring author. Would like to finish his “Zombie Revelations” trilogy if he could break away for working on RunPee and the cottage he’s building for RunPee Mom.
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Jill Florio Administrator
I’m extremely impressed with this post – thoughtful, witty, smart. I don’t understand all the hate for movies based around women and minorities. Why is a bad thing to be in favor of social justice? (The whole SJW thing makes no sense. Isn’t it good to have movies for everyone? Haven’t we evolved as a species? …Yeah yeah, I’ll shut up now.)
I have yet to see Ex-Machina, but it’s on my laptop. It’s my next movie to enjoy. I hope. I watched Colossal at your recommendation and why have I not heard of this one? It even has major actors in it? I need to discuss this one with someone since it’s layered, slow, thoughtful and imaginative…but I don’t entirely get why the thing with the things happened (being vague to not spoil it).
I would add Bird Box (it’s A Quiet Place but with eyes no ears, and Sandra Bullock rocks it.) A Netflix special that didn’t come out in the theater, but this is a good thing — easy to watch at home. It’s not as good as A Quiet Place, and has plot holes (what doesn’t?)…but I enjoyed it.
Her was…sad, but good.
Emily Blunt is the find of the decade. Between Edge of Tomorrow and Quiet Place, I am in awe of her talent. (Scarlett too, of course. These gals are the go-to heroes lately.)
Excellent choices for the last decade of movies.
I wouldn’t have added Gravity either, so good omission there. It has that one really neat ‘fetal’ image, but the story has too many problems and not enough energy.
And YEP: Arrival is the best sci fi piece of the decade, IMO. Nothing like this has ever been done before. It’s about as flawless as an introspective sci fi gets. (*Unlike* Ad Astra, which has nice set pieces but is a bummer of a film that doesn’t have much to say, in the end). With Arrival, I GET it. And I agree with the character’s choice. I don’t even think it’s sad. I love it. ALSO WAY TO GO for a new and fascinating alien plot/ I loved the ‘Contact’ aspects with the unique communication that we last saw in…well…Contact.
Speaking of which, although not from this decade, Contact would fit nicely into this list. Maybe that’s the real forebearer here of this kind of sci-fi movie.
Dan Gardner Administrator
A little trivia I just read a few days ago: Emily Blunt was the first pick to be Black Widow, but couldn’t take the role in Iron Man 2 due to scheduling conflicts. Can you imagine?
I agree, *Arrival* and *Contact* share a lot in common, besides both being amazing movies that feature protagonist women characters.
Eventually I’ll write a complete breakdown of Colossal. But not today. 🙂
Jill Florio Administrator
Emily Blunt would have been a great Black Widow, but that would have skewed the character younger. I liked her as a more mature hero with Scarlet. I can’t see anyone else doing the role now.
Scarlet also did Ghost in the Shell this year. These two ladies are all over science fiction these days…
Write that Colossal breakdown! I should watch it a second time.
Another note: I actually liked Brie Larson as Captain Marvel because her baby face and short stature struck an interesting juxtaposition with the personality she was directed to play. She looked ‘cute’, which was unexpected with her quiet seriousness. It made the humor better, I think, kinda like how the cat was really a deadly Flurkin, but looked sweet and cuddly on the outside. And Brie had great chemistry with Samuel Jackson. It was hard to tell, but I think she played well off Tom Holland too, in the second we saw them interact.
Dan Gardner Administrator
Agreed, Emily Blunt would have been great, but I wouldn’t trade her for Scarlet. However, believe it or not, Blunt is 1 year older than Scarlet. So there’s that.
I didn’t dislike Brie Larson as Captain Marvel. I just think Blake Lively would have been better. Different, but better.
I disagree because women HAVE been in Sci-Fi for a very long time! Look at the queen Sigourney Weaver, my goodness the Alien franchise Hero of the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s not to mention Ghostbusters- okay she was not a Ghostbuster but the movie would not have been possible without her character so definitely a critical character in the film. As well as a host of other Sci-fi movies. Next there is The Terminator Hero Linda Hamilton! And she went on to have numerous Sci-fi roles to including the Beauty and the Beast Series. Next on the list would be Jamie Lee Curtis and you might classify her as horror but Sci-Fi and Horror walk a VERY fine line. What I am saying here is that Women have been present for years in Sci-fi and in fact, have kept the genre alive in some cases but the most important factor was that they did not keep the genre going based on their sexuality, sex appeal or just the fact that they were women! They kept the genre going because their characters were STRONG! The story needed a hero that was tough and the characters these ladies brought those stories to life and that is what endears them to us all to this day. Writers need to focus on the plot and make the stories good and put the window dressing away. What makes a hero noble is not their race, sex, sexuality or any of the political drivel but the character of the hero!
Dan Gardner Administrator
Hey Jason. You’re absolutely right. I should have mentioned both Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor. But they have more in common than just being strong lead characters in action movies. Both characters were the creation of the same man: James Cameron. You can even add Jamie Lee Curtis to that list for her role in *True Lies*.
Hollywood action movies prior to the #MeToo movement aren’t devoid of strong female characters, but they are sorely under represented. And if you remove the contributions made by Cameron then we’re talking about nothing more than a handful of movies, some of which place women in the action lead as a gimmick.
I truly think that these days action movies represent women in lead action roles that feel natural and less gimmicky and I’m sure that the trend will continue. It’s already been hinted at that the next few phases of the MCU will be even more inclusive with gender and gender identities.
I really enjoyed your comment and hope there are more to come. In the future, if you feel like you have something you’re passionate to express consider writing a post and we’ll talk about publishing it here.
Jill Florio Administrator
I do think it’s significant that we have some movies with a woman hero as the title character, singularly because it took so long for this to happen: now we have Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, and soon Black Widow. It’s amazing that I’ve lived with movies more than 50 years and Hollywood finally decided this kind of thing can drive people to the theaters for action and sci-fi (not just in chick flicks). The same can be said about race and Black Panther.
I agree we should move onto just telling the best story possible regardless of race and gender. I just think we aren’t quite there yet. The hubbub over the new Star Wars movies is one example of people still getting bent out of shape over these things.
I agree about Alien(s), Terminator, and Contact having provided sci-fi role models for me growing up. Also, I know a lot of people didn’t like Star Trek Voyager, but having a female captain was a big deal when it came out. And now…Janeway is just a captain. Not a ‘female captain.’ Sisko in Deep Space 9…same thing, but with race. At the time, people never thought a sci fi show about a Black man would ever be appealing, and now it’s considered a milestone not in race, but in good serial storytelling. Progress and baby steps.
Jill Florio Administrator
Damn it. I just wrote a super long additional comment and my internet went down and ate it.
It was about Xena, Buffy, X-Files, Firefly…it was a really thoughtful post. Basically, these were strong characters who were strong characters…not strong “woman characters”. I also commented on Battlestar Galactica. Lots of gender reversals that aren’t even commented on. Scully is the skeptical, scientific one. Starbuck is the top pilot. Zoey is the hard ass sharpshooter. Xena is just the best warrior in the known world — no mention of being the best ‘woman warrior’.
We needed these things in the 90s to get to where we are today.
Dan Gardner Administrator
I was just thinking, the real sign that a gender or minority is close to equality is when they can consistently cast as corporate villains, not heros.
By “corporate villains” I mean the villain who is the head of an corporation that does evil things. Right now that role is dominated by old white men because it’s old white men that are viewed as the top of the corporate power structure.
There are a few examples I can think of. If memory serves Jodie Foster was the corporate leader in the movie *Elysium*. And I think there was a woman behind the evil company in *Rampage* with Dwayne Johnson. Also Charlize Theron is the “bad guy” in some of the Fast & Furious movies, although I’m not sure she’s a corporate bad guy or a terrorist.
It would be interesting to try and dig up all the villain roles and their genders and plot that over time.
Jill Florio Administrator
Or good villains in general. There are more hero women than villain women, especially as the head villain. Dan, that’s an interesting way to look at equality.
Female villains, not corporate but excellent characters:
Callisto in Xena. Again, no mention that she is female leading an army of warlords, just a skilled psycho. And Admiral Cain (BSG). That Admiral is at her most frightening and dangerous when she’s not saying a word and just giving you a thoughtful look.
Ursula the Sea Witch in Little Mermaid might apply. She’s not an Evil Disney Mom (TM), just a powerful woman with a long tail agenda for herself. Long tail, ha. No pun intended.
Annie Wilks from Misery is extremely frightening.
Bellatrix LeStrange is nuts, but is only a henchman, so IDK is that counts. She’s the most powerful person next to Voldemort, and even he can barely control her.
Dolores Umbridge is the definition of a corporate villain.
Nurse Ratched is a corporate villain.
Farscape had one nasty piece of of work who raped our hero and commanded an army. In general, almost every woman in Farscape is more powerful than John Crichton.
If the Borg are the equivalent of the ultimate corporation, then we have the Borg Queen.
Galadriel in LotR would have been a villain with not much of a stretch if she took the Ring, but she knew it, and passed her ‘test’. Not sure how many people know this, but Galadriel was already on probation from her gods and forbidden to pass to the Uttermost West (for things she did in the 1st Age). It takes her that long to be forgiven and allowed to go home in the 4th Age.
I’m not including anti-villains/antiheroes like Harley Quinn or Catwoman.