In the first act of “Annihilation,” Natalie Portman’s character, a biologist and Army veteran named Lena, joins a crew planning to venture into Area X, a mysterious stretch of land surrounded by a translucent rainbow entity called the Shimmer. Multiple investigative teams have entered the Shimmer before, only to never be heard from again.
So who are these undeterred explorers? Anya (Gina Rodriguez), a paramedic; Josie (Tessa Thompson), a physicist; Cass (Tuva Novotny), an anthropologist; and Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist.
“All women,” Lena observes. Anya counters, “All scientists.”
Well, they are both. Like the Dora Milaje of “Black Panther” or time-traveling Meg Murry of “A Wrinkle in Time,” the scientists are shaped by their professions and gender. These recently released films dispute a mainstream perception of science fiction as a masculine genre, using feminine costumes and environments to build the strong-willed characters. Nothing will stop these women from overcoming the perilous obstacles ahead of them.
“They stand up in the face of danger and shake their fists and say, ‘You won’t beat us,’ ” said Lisa Yaszek, a professor of science fiction studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Science fiction has been shaped by women since its inception: English novelist Mary Shelley, who first published “Frankenstein” nearly 200 years ago, is widely credited as its founder. Though still dominated by men when it hopped across the pond in the early 20th century, according to Yaszek, the genre “was never just about boys and their toys.” She estimated that from the 1920s to the 1970s, women made up about 15 percent of those working in the genre — or as much as 30 percent, if you include looser forms like fantasy.
The tail end of this period benefited from the rise of the feminist movement, birthing what Yaszek called “smart, creative, engaging science fiction that tasks us to think about our assumptions of sex and gender, and whether or not they hold true in the modern world.” Madeleine L’Engle struggled to get “A Wrinkle in Time” published in the early 1960s due to its female protagonist. But just seven years later, Ursula K. Le Guin experimented with the deconstruction of gender in her 1969 work “The Left Hand of Darkness.”
Some films also reflected the change.
“By the 1970s, you have someone like Princess Leia, who I think is the first sci-fi heroine to rescue herself,” Yaszek said. “You get Ellen Ripley in the ‘Alien’ franchise, who is both a mother and quite a good fighter.”
Women often turn to science fiction because it allows oppressed communities to imagine a different future, Yaszek said. When combining this with filmmakers’ love of exploring the human condition and heart, you get movies like “Black Panther,” notable for its revolutionary depictions of both race and gender.
It is no wonder how positively audiences received the Dora Milaje, female warriors who fiercely serve the Wakandan crown with spears in hand. Costume designer Ruth E. Carter described their appearance as “feminine, masculine, beautiful and strong,” which their leader Okoye (Danai Gurira) represents well.
Okoye is a general who puts her duty to protect King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) above all else. It is revealed she has a partner, W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), but she tells him in combat she would not hesitate to end his life if he got in the way of her protecting her country.
“These are women who are being defined simultaneously by their professions and their relations,” Yaszek said of the Dora Milaje. “But if one takes priority, it tends to be the professional identity. They’re not dry old maids channeling their sexual energy into something else.”
The empowered women of Wakanda engage with all social realms. T’Challa’s mother (Angela Bassett) fills a traditional caretaking role, while his younger sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), serves as the country’s source of technological innovation. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a Wakandan spy and T’Challa’s love interest, maintains a graceful demeanor but fights fiercely.
Careers define the characters of “Annihilation,” too, as it is how the members of each investigative team are selected. The scientists’ interactions with one another primarily concern the physical properties of Area X, a land of genetically mutated plants and creatures. (The film certainly passes the Bechdel test.)
Life within the Shimmer contrasts with the scientists’ drab militarylike gear. It is visually feminine, with flowers everywhere and pink and purple hues abound — an unusual aesthetic for sci-fi films. Area X is a land of growth and life, qualities also associated with women, but there is something unnerving about how its lavish beauty came to be. The focus is therefore brought back to how the women exhibit their scientific prowess while examining it all.
“It’s a different kind of feminine, just as it’s a different kind of evolution and growth in Area X,” Yaszek said. “And a different kind of women [from who we usually see on screen], who can be friendly around each other and not competitive.”
While both “Annihilation” and “A Wrinkle in Time” deal with hostile external forces, the protagonists’ motivations are largely personal. Lena volunteered for the trip to try to save her ailing husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), the only previous explorer to return from Area X. Similarly, 13-year-old Meg (Storm Reid) of “A Wrinkle in Time” follows three otherworldly beings — Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) — to other planets to defeat the IT, an evil energy, and save her father.
Visuals matter here. The three Mrs. W’s exude femininity — the “Mrs.” alone does that — in a way that draws from their celestial nature. The more sparkly their makeup and costumes, the stronger their powers. Light and goodness allow the trio to tesseract through time and space, and Meg’s ability to feel love allows her to fight the IT.
“When you say ‘feminizing,’ people think of softness in certain places, but I think of strength in other places” where it is normally overlooked, director Ava DuVernay recently told the New York Times.
A recent study found that 4 percent of female protagonists in 2017’s top-grossing films appeared in sci-fi films. It seems surprisingly low, until you realize the number is the same for men. This equal participation in science fiction, backed by female-led films like “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and “Arrival,” points us to imagine a better future, according to Yaszek.
“While science fiction films, like other films, sometimes reiterate the problematic race and gender relations we see in our own world, it does allow us to dream of other worlds and time where things can be different,” she said. “And maybe truly better for everyone. If not better, then different.”