The femme fatale has been one of film’s most fascinating archetypes since the earliest days of the medium. Sexy, self-assured, and quite often murderous, she seduces and destroys with abandon. Her behavior is heightened to such a degree that real-life women would never be able to get away with, and she always knows how to use her powers.
In space, no one can hear you scream — but that doesn’t stop an evil-doer from trying. This week, Polygon celebrates all forms of sci-fi villainy because someone has to (or else).
While femme fatales might not be the first thing you think of when it comes to sci-fi, the genre (so often thought of as the province of nerdy men) allows her to become even more powerful. In sci-fi, the femme fatale can take the form of an alien or a robot or some other kind of fantasy being. The femme fatale-ness and otherworldliness enhance one another, increasing her evil abilities beyond what they would be in a film noir or erotic thriller. Sure, Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity and Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction (to name just two iconic examples) were femme fatales, but could they shapeshift and channel the supernatural? Not quite.
We’ve gathered some of our favorite sci-fi femme fatales — all of them mythical creatures who get away with villainous behavior and look cool while doing it.
Pris (Daryl Hannah), Blade Runner
By design, it’s hard to definitively say who’s good and who’s evil in Ridley Scott’s stylish dystopian classic, but with her ass-kicking abilities and unforgettable character design, Pris makes for a dynamic (and robotic) femme fatale. A “basic pleasure model” Replicant who rebels, Pris is a punk in black mesh and dramatic makeup (including a killer streak of black across her eyes) who has incredible endurance and physicality and defies all expectations for a sex robot by refusing to go down without a fight.
Ava (Alicia Vikander), Ex Machina
Designed by a wildly wealthy tech bro and living in seclusion, Ava is an android with a sleek, silver body and a human face. Ava is able to use the illusion of femmebot passivity to subvert expectations and double cross the two men she’s sequestered with. Ultimately, Ava proves herself to be savvier than her creator and ends up killing him, escaping from her hermetic world, her femme fatale abilities having freed her at last.
The Black Queen of Sogo (Anita Pallenberg), Barbarella
As if being romantically involved with Keith Richards wasn’t already cool enough, Anita Pallenberg further cemented her status as a ’60s icon with her role as the evil queen in the cult classic Barbarella. Wearing S&M-chic outfits and an eyepatch and ruling over a ridiculous empire, the Black Queen is both tyrannical and seductive, a raven-haired gothic foil to Jane Fonda’s blonde and bubbly go-go girl.
Laura (Scarlett Johansson), Under the Skin
Under the Skin possesses a singularly unsettling atmosphere, bolstered by Scarlett Johansson’s mysterious and compelling performance as a woman who commits truly heinous acts without a hint of emotion. An alien who takes the form of an unnamed, pouting woman with a steely gaze and a fur coat, Johansson wanders through the streets of Scotland, driven by nightmarish logic and saying barely a word as she seduces random men and leads them to their deaths in a haunting black abyss.
Sil (Natasha Henstridge), Species
A classic of the glossy, oversexed period of mid-’90s filmmaking (with all the gratuitous nudity that implies), Species concerns Sil, a humanoid alien who seduces and kills. Sil’s supernatural abilities befuddle the group of scientists tracking her, and they fear the possibility that her mating and giving birth could signal the downfall of the human race. Of course, Sil only cares about going in for the kill, and her striking looks let her get away with murder again and again. To top it all off, her alien form was designed by H.R. Giger, creator of one of the most fatal characters of all, the creature from the horror/sci-fi classic Alien.
Space Girl (Mathilda May), Lifeforce
What’s creepier than an alien? How about a vampire alien that literally drains the life right out of human victims? Tobe Hooper’s film runs on coked-up, flashy energy, and an unnamed space babe, played by French actress Mathilda May, is nearly always nude and draws male attention effortlessly. The fatal combination of nudity, vampirism, and shapeshifting alien ability inevitably leads to a trail of brutal destruction.
Lori (Sharon Stone), Total Recall
When you think of Sharon Stone as a femme fatale, Basic Instinct is likely the first film that comes to mind, but her previous role for director Paul Verhoeven, in Total Recall, was also an excellent showcase for her ability to play evil but beautiful characters. Total Recall takes place in a paranoid world of implanted memories and shadowy organizations, and sees Stone posing as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wife in order to spy on him, all while wearing some truly excellent early-’90s workout wear.
Consuella (Charlotte Rampling), Zardoz
Charlotte Rampling’s sophistication makes her ideally suited for femme fatale roles, and in the ’70s cult classic Zardoz, she plays an immortal “Eternal” who imprisons Sean Connery and initially hopes to destroy him. The film is known for its outlandish plot and bizarre costuming (truly, Connery’s red suspender/codpiece/thigh-high boots look cannot be unseen), and Rampling’s matriarchal ruling, cool crop tops, and imperious attitude add intrigue to this strangest of sci-fis.
The Woman in the Red Dress (Fiona Johnson), The Matrix
As a simulated character in The Matrix’s Agent Training Program, The Woman in the Red Dress may not be real, but she’s definitely fatal. Her red dress is deliberately designed to make her stand out in a sea of people dressed in drab colors, and she distracts Neo with her beauty only to then morph into the evil, gun-wielding Agent Smith. The specter of the femme fatale is here a dangerous distraction, and serves as one of many moments in the film that make us question reality.