Critical reactions to Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time may have been mixed, but there’s no denying it is a cinema landmark. DuVernay is not just the first woman of colour to direct a $100m (£72m) movie, but a member of a very exclusive club – female directors of big-budget science fiction.
It is sobering to realise that Kathryn Bigelow’s $42m sci-fi noir Strange Days was released nearly a quarter of a century ago. It was a resounding flop, which no doubt convinced studios that women should not be allowed to direct the genre at all. Since then, we have also had Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending from the Wachowskis. But one can’t help wondering if, back in 1999, Warner Bros would have entrusted The Matrix’s $60m budget to a couple of relative unknowns if they had been called Lilly and Lana, instead of Larry and Andy.
The next high-profile sci-fi film directed by a woman will be Claire Denis’ first English-language film, High Life, starring Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche on a spaceship. But Denis is French, and a 2014 survey found that nearly a quarter of France’s film directors were female, compared to single figures for the US. Sci-fi movies invariably demand big budgets, and Hollywood is notoriously reluctant to admit girls into a boys’ playground where Colin Trevorrow, Josh Trank, Gareth Edwards and Jordan Vogt-Roberts were all given blockbusters to direct after a single indie hit, whereas Patty Jenkins had to wait 14 years between Monster and Wonder Woman.
But sci-fi is still fiercely defended masculine territory. The word “science” doesn’t help, judging by men’s rights movement support for James Damore, the Google engineer fired for claiming the gender imbalance in the science and technology sectors was due to biological differences. Or for the Sad Puppies movement agitating for a return to pre-diversity science fiction. Or never-ending Gamergate nonsense, or whingeing about Star Wars being sullied by women or people of colour. Sci-fi is a cultural Custer’s Last Stand for bigotry. Sometimes it’s just easier to cave in and call it speculative fiction.
Yet it is clear that blockbusters such as Passengers and Jurassic World could have benefited from more female input, if only to point out that women don’t usually fall in love with creepy stalkers or go on safari in stiletto heels. It’s not that we need more kick-ass sci-fi heroines so much as a wider perspective on technological and ethical issues in the imagined future.
In the 200th anniversary of the publication of one of science fiction’s cornerstone texts, written by a woman, it is dispiriting to reflect that no female director has ever been allowed anywhere near any of the dozens of screen adaptations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
But the way forward for would-be female sci-fi film-makers is surely honing their craft in the low-budget sector, following in the footsteps of outliers. For example, there is Lizzie Borden, whose 1983 faux-documentary Born in Flames depicts a dystopic New York in which women mobilise against a post-revolutionary socialist US government (a sci-fi concept in itself). Or – in complete contrast – Susan Seidelman, whose sci-fi romcom Making Mr Right (1987) stars John Malkovich as goofy android love interest.
More recent female sci-fi directors have floundered on a crucial failure to engage the audience, and a lack of the narrative focus seen in low-budget male-directed films such as Predestination, Coherence or Time Lapse. The ideas are there, but the craft needs work.
Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous, in which a single mother undergoes an experimental procedure to make herself look younger and more ethnically ambiguous, fails to merge intriguing concepts into a dramatically satisfying whole. Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch begins in sensational style as the heroine loses a couple of limbs to cannibals, but the story runs out of gas. Patricia Rozema’s Into the Forest stars Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood as sisters holed up in an isolated house during a technological collapse, but Rozema favours dull sisterhood cliches over her story’s sci-fi themes.
A more promising use of that mainstay setting of low-budget sci-fi, the post-apocalyptic huis clos [no exit], is Stéphanie Joalland’s writing-directing debut The Quiet Hour, a British/Irish co-production in which siblings are besieged by aliens and human predators in a remote farmhouse. Joalland says the micro-budget obliged her to keep the science fiction elements in the background, and it is true the results are maybe a little too low-key for modern tastes, but she is keen to explore the genre further. “My next film, Ice, deals with neuroscience and will pave the way for my more ambitious project, The Seedling, which is set in the future and deals with global warming and biotechnologies,” she says.
“I don’t burden myself with too many concerns with regard to gender dynamics, to be honest.” But Joalland is optimistic about a future in which female directors are “making studio movies and succeeding, and thus creating a compound effect of inspiring a younger generation of female sci-fi writers and directors”. So get to it, female sci-fi film-makers – the future is yours for the taking.
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