ALL TOMORROW'S SIRENS
Daniel Faraday called it a constant. Daniel Faraday being the jittery physicist from Lost. And the reason he was so jittery may well be Desmond, who’s about to go back in time, and run the risk of getting lost in it. Unless, of course, he has a constant, a recurring event perhaps, or better yet a recurring person to whom he had an emotional attachment of such ferocity it acts as hook, as coordinate, as way back. In Terry Gillam’s grandiose remake, Twelve Monkeys, her name was Kathryn Reilly, but in Chris Marker’s original La Jetee (The Pier) from 1962, she had no name, but the woman Helene Chatelain played was quite possibly the first constant. And consequently, my top pick for science-fiction cinema siren.
My picks are highly subjective, of course. Some you can see coming, because how can you not slot Jane Fonda’s Barbarella in for quintessence, not to mention Sigourney Weaver’s entire run as Ripley in the Alien quadrilogy for will to power, and the eponymous troika of superwomen from The Heroic Trio played by Michelle Yeoh and Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung, for sheer resplendence? All draw from my own tastes in women and from how high I regard the work said women appear in, guided by how a siren is defined by her specific effect on men. And Chatelain only seems like an outlier choice until we start going by how one dictionary definition boils that effect down to “beguiling”. La Jetee may well be the greatest science fiction film full stop and Chatelain’s crucial function may have been to keep the time-travelling soldier from going insane. But that’s only if you don’t count the burning love that drove him to return to the past and save the future again and again and again as a sort of insanity, too. It’s the same effect Kate Winslet’s Clementine has on Jim Carrey in Michel Gondry’s (and Charlie Kaufman’s) mesmerizing grafting of Philip K. Dick with Alain Resnais, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, that is, the desire to repeatedly go through any strait no matter how dire with someone. Both feature, too, a man whose destiny is ultimately shaped by a woman. No other definition of beguilement holds a candle.
And this is really the prevailing dynamic for most of the more obvious choices, even Elsa Lanchester’s Bride of Frankenstein, undisputedly the first siren of science-fiction cinema, who did sooth the savage beast. Despite the dominance of the male hormone in science-fiction and despite that dominance verging on obsolescence, the presence of a woman in a piece of science-fiction cinema can still be wonderfully disruptive. Grace Park’s feisty engineer Boomer in Ronald Moore’s gritty re-jig of Battlestar Galactica had several men wriggling under her thumb. Megumi Hayashibara’s Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop, Diana Rigg’s Mrs. Peel from The Avengers and Karen Gillen’s Amelia Pond from the last two seasons of Doctor Who all had a habit of constantly upstaging the men they were supposed to be mere foils to, and those men would include a bounty hunter, a crack secret agent and a Time Lord, respectively. And no amount of new age gibberish would’ve sold Neo into entering The Matrix had Trinity been any less alluring.
Trinity, of course, is a mash-up built from parts of Ghost in the Shell’s Major Kusanagi and Peter Chung’s Aeon Flux and Molly from William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Selina Kyle from the Batman comics and Irma Vep from Louis Feuillade’s epic proto-noir serial Les Vampires. But she's also the embodiment of that other genre’s archetype. The femme fatale of noir is “a mysterious alluring woman who leads men into dangerous situations”. And when Trinity goes acrobat all over those cops and agents and buildings at the start of The Matrix, like a two-gun fetish-wear wu xia angel of doom, your first impulse may be a hormonal swoon, but the next and more fatal one, is to follow her wherever she leads.
1. Helene Chatelain as The Woman from La Jetee (Chris Marker): She had no name, she said nothing, but not only was she a time traveler’s object of desire but eventually the shaper of his destiny, which is essentially what all women are.
2. Megumi Hayashibara as Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop (Shinichiro Watanabe): She’s a cartoon, deal with it. And futuristic bounty hunters don’t come any spunkier or sexier.
3. Diana Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel from The Avengers (Brian Clemens): The proto-Scully no less. First and fairer. Sorry Gillian, but we are talking about the only woman James Bond saw fit to marry.
4. Karen Gillen as Amelia Pond from Doctor Who (Series 5-6) (Steven Moffatt): No companion of the Doctor made me swoon so bad it broke my heart the way Amy did.
5. Sigourney Weaver as Ripley from Alien (Ridley Scott): Not just for the fact that she fought the eponymous nasty in nothing but her underwear but I’d be lying if I said that had no bearing.
6. Kate Winslet as Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry): The damaged girlfriend we all know and we all would probably go through recurring cycles of relationship hell. even in a future where romantic bliss was within reach.
7. Michelle Yeoh, Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung as the Heroic Trio from The Heroic Trio (Johnnie To) : The first ladies of HK cinema together in one film as wu xia superheroes saving a pulpy HK of the future. It had me at “the first ladies of HK cinema in one film”.
8. Jane Fonda as Barbarella from Barbarella (Roger Vadim): Nobody outside of the Europeans could touch Jane Fonda in the 60s. Strap her into a skimpy superhero costume and it’s game over.
9. Carrie Anne Moss as Trinity from The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers): The sci-fic/noir mashup that is cyberpunk doesn’t have a deep bench in terms of cinema but Trinity is hands down its sovereign femme fatale.
10. Grace Park as Boomer from Battlestar Galactica (Ronald Moore): Excuse the gushing but she did tend to light up the darkest, nastiest longform sci-fic series so far. That has got to count.
11. Elsa Lanchester as The Bride from The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale): The first science-fiction cinema siren, no less. Stupid to omit lest you want her “husband” on your case.
*originally published in Vault