Annihilation deals in bountiful hallucinogenic imagery, but the image from Alex Garland’s sci-fi horror that may prove most remarkable to audiences is one that really ought to be mundane: a poster featuring the film’s five female leads. Female representation in Hollywood still lags far behind —women made up only 34 percent of speaking characters in top-grossing films last year, while the number of female leads has, in fact, recently fallen—but Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny have the reins of this $55 million Paramount project, while Oscar Isaac, the film’s most significant male character, takes the supporting role of imperilled love interest to a take-action female hero.
It’s an uncommon setup, and not just for a generously budgeted studio picture. But it’s less unusual when you narrow the focus to science fiction, where women have recently been taking the lead on-screen. Garland’s sophomore effort as writer-director follows his own Ex Machina, plus such sizable productions as Arrival, Gravity, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Cloverfield Paradox, Colossal, Okja, and The Shape of Water, in putting a woman or women at the forefront of a science-fiction narrative. A lack of faith in leading women prevails across the industry, but though the big superhero films, comedies, action movies, and even animated flicks are still dominated by male characters and stories, sci-fi has diverged from the pack.
Traditionally the genre has been as obsessed with the masculine as any other. The classics of science-fiction cinema have been, from Things to Come (1936) and Forbidden Planet (1956), through 2001 (1968) and Solaris (1972), on to Blade Runner (1982) and The Matrix (1999), typically anchored by men. Lately, however, sci-fi has become a rare genre in which actresses are reliably permitted to be stars: Although Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow has yet to be given her own Marvel movie, Johansson has been doing her most notable work as a star of science fiction, with Lucy, Her, Under the Skin, and Ghost in the Shell all arriving in the last five years. Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) and Shailene Woodley (the Divergent series) made names for themselves by headlining their own massive sci-fi franchises.
It’s not just new sci-fi franchises embracing the female lead. Existing ones are also changing course. Prometheus and Covenant continued the Alien series’ tradition of putting a resilient woman in the driver’s seat, but other typically macho sci-fi franchises have lately swapped male leads for female ones. The last three Star Wars movies all featured a woman in the lead role, while upcoming Godzilla and Transformers movies will respectively place Vera Farmiga and Hailee Steinfeld front and center.
Science fiction, like the horror genre (itself no stranger to strong female characters), has often been marketed more on its ideas than its casting; studio execs, perhaps responding to repeated calls for better female representation, mightn’t see so much risk in “allowing” women to be the faces of the new sci-fi cinema. But that doesn’t account for why women’s themes are increasingly essential to sci-fi stories. Perhaps more than any other film genre, science fiction has always reflected the time in which it was made. It makes sense that, at a time of debate over gender disparity, a genre so ripe for allegory would be grappling with what it means to be a woman.
We see it in Ex Machina, which finds Alicia Vikander playing one of several disposable “female” robots built by Oscar Isaac’s tech bro for his sexual gratification, mistaken for a damsel in need of saving by Domhnall Gleeson’s wannabe savior, and ultimately becoming the de facto protagonist of the film by outsmarting both men; in Gravity, an apparent two-hander that disposes of George Clooney’s nominal hero in the first third and subsequently gives Sandra Bullock’s spacewoman room to prove her own heroism; and in Mad Max: Fury Road, a stealthy feminist blockbuster that ostensibly makes premier beefcake Tom Hardy’s Max Rockatansky the lead, then quickly cedes the floor to a band of women fighting to be free of the patriarchy, led by Charlize Theron’s one-armed Furiosa.
We see it in Arrival, which makes Amy Adams not just the smartest person in the room but on the planet, and argues that patience and compassion are more critical to world peace than male reactionary bluster. Arguably most fascinating are Johansson’s recent excursions into sci-fi: Through playing an alien disguised as an English seductress (Under the Skin), an intelligent operating system–cum-girlfriend to a lonely writer (Her), a drug mule who develops superpowers after ingesting a synthetic substance (Lucy), and an android with the memories of a dead woman (Ghost in the Shell), Johansson questions not just what it means to be female but what it means to be human. These “post-human” roles have their own ideas about female agency and sexuality, but ultimately all come to the same conclusion in one respect: that to be woman is to be much more than the form society often tries to reduce her to.
Science-fiction cinema hasn’t become a women’s utopia just yet. Though many of the genre’s stories are now refreshingly female-oriented, none of the recent crop of female-led sci-fi movies has been created by a female director, indicative of a prevailing lack of studio trust in female creatives handling any projects larger than indies. (Think of Kathleen Kennedy’s 2016 suggestion that there were no female filmmakers experienced enough to take on Star Wars, after Josh Trank had been prematurely hired to oversee a proposed Boba Fett film based on his low-budget directorial debut alone.)
The dearth of women working behind the scenes in science-fiction cinema is no doubt a reason why accusations of sexism can still be leveled at the genre. See as examples the other big sci-fi release of the week, Duncan Jones’ Mute, which fixates on the abuse of women without having anything to say on the matter, or Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, a film that features several prominent female characters but which, it has been argued, is confused as to how to portray them.
It’s why films like the upcoming A Wrinkle in Time, a studio-backed and woman-fronted sci-fi marshaled by Ava DuVernay; The Darkest Minds, a YA adaptation from 20th Century Fox and director Jennifer Yuh Nelson due in September; and the upcoming Cowboy Ninja Viking, a dystopian action comedy starring Chris Pratt and directed by Michelle MacLaren, are causes for celebration. So, too, the recent Oscar recognition for Vanessa Taylor, co-writer of Divergent and The Shape of Water, and Mica Levi, the composer for female-oriented sci-fi films Under the Skin and Marjorie Prime. The male creative stranglehold on science fiction appears to be going, if slowly, the way of all-male sci-fi casts. And as others trail, a genre that has often been underestimated as trashy or disposable continues to lead the way for mainstream cinema.