Film

Sigourney Weaver Saves the Cosmos!

Pull back all the girl power politics and strong role model manipulation and you have one of the rare actors who understands the needs of the narrative, no matter how outrageous or unrealistic.


Avatar

Director: James Cameron
Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoë Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso
Rated: PG-13
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Year: 2009
US date: 2010-04-22 (General release)
UK date: 2010-04-22 (General release)
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She started off as a fresh-faced newcomer, an acting unknown lighting up the New York stage with small but significant parts. She ended up becoming the ultimate post-modern cinematic symbol of feminist empowerment, a force with more estrogen than ego. From bit parts in Annie Hall to the signature role as Lt. Ellen Ripley, alien fighter, Sigourney Weaver has been at the center of the sci-fi realm since hooking up with Ridley Scott back in 1979. Over the years, she's appeared in numerous genre efforts, earning Academy Award attention for her work (in James Cameron's brilliant revisionist war film sequel, Aliens) and the hearts of many a speculative fiction geek.

So what is it about the statuesque actress that's turned her from a respected serious thespian to an extraterrestrial butt-kicker? How do you go from Off-Broadway to off planet, romantic leading lady and dramatic lynchpin to a comic reinterpretation of a Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future? The answer, oddly enough, can be found in her latest trip into orbit. As part of another Cameron epic, the mega-moneymaker Avatar (hitting home video on Earth Day, 22 April), Weaver turns what could have been a tired bit of pseudo-science grousing (she plays Dr. Grace Augustine, leader of the genetic "replacement" program on the distant Pandora) and reinvented it as the human heart of a very technologically complex tale.

In last year's pop phenom, Weaver is the cynical and disgruntled scapegoat, her character viewed as an unnecessary, reluctantly agreed-to element of the corporate rape of the far off world. She leads our hero, Jake Sully, through the big blue being paces, takes on the firebrand posturing of the military and Colonel Miles Quaritch and most importantly, works as a liaison between the native Na'Vi and the suits determined to destroy them. She's the voice of reason in a circumstance that often begs logic, a breath of fresh - if slightly stale cigarette smoke laced - air in a room divided by greed, fear, and the usual panic over profit margins and personal gain.

Grace "gets" the Na'Vi. She sees them as bastions of peace and acute perception. They represent a rare opportunity to study a populace in tune with their own unique land and nature. Throughout the film she countermands the collective belief that, as any impediment to eventual gain, they should be ignored - or at the very worst, eradicated. She fights for their very existence and worth, plays her own internal tricks on her unscrupulous backers and, in the end, discovers the true beauty, majesty and magic of Pandora. As she has before, Weaver is our window, a normal individual's guide into places filled with impossibility, peril (and acid-blooded monsters) or wistful Star Trek like obsession (her work in the nerd nostalgia classic Galaxy Quest remains some of her best).

That's the key to Weaver's lasting appeal. Pull back all the girl power politics and strong role model manipulation and you have one of the rare actors who understands the needs of the narrative, no matter how outrageous or unrealistic. She brings humanism to a category that usually forgoes the recognizable or identifiable approach, anchoring the storyline in believable emotions and real world feelings. When Ripley first realizes that she is trapped with the alien in the Nostromo's escape pod, the fear on her face is very real, the resolve to survive equally as authentic. In her return confrontation with the creature, her mother instincts kick in, her love and need to protect Newt overcoming a psyche scarred by bad memories and even more horrific realities.

In Avatar, Grace Augustine is more than just a series of explanations. In many ways, Weaver's performance encapsulates everything she's done before (even work outside the sci-fi genre). The maternal quality is there, as is the scared and unsure survivor. There is a world-weariness and maturity that's been missing from other phases of her career, as well as a true freedom and lithe physicality aided by the motion capture technology used. There's even a sense of devil may care cockiness and Zen fatale wisdom. While Jake is the wide-eyed innocent and Quaritch is the determined devil, Grace is somewhere in the middle. While see recognizes the callous reasons for her participation in the project, she's gained some invaluable insights. If doomed, she won't go down without a fight.

It's not just about research for her, however. Grace is reminiscent of the '60s and '70s iconoclasts who grew up to realize that dreaming and imagining doesn't get the job done. She tries to balance her sense of ethos with a means of making everyone happy - and when she fails (more or less), takes the rejection far too personally. It's a character unlike anything we've seen in science fiction - a vulnerable and fragile female image, outsmarting the men while still stymied because of them. Most women in the genre are eye candy, or victims, veiled attempts at taking the machismo out of the always testosterone fueled film style. Weaver - and the roles she's inhabited - have broadened the spectrum of what speculative material can manage. She's turned it from testicular to timeless.

It's true - how else do you explain the upturn in female heroes and action stars. From Tomb Raider to Resident Evil, where guys once gummed up the works with their brawn and bravado, the ladies are making the major strides. Weaver may not be the main reason, but she is clearly the most recognizable…and most influential. Ellen Ripley is practically a religion, her arc from survivor to surrogate one of the great explorations of character ever. Granted, Aliens 3 and 4 didn't do much for the gospel, but Weaver's work never let the material down. Similarly, Avatar may be exposed as having a few film (and format) truisms, but it's not because of the actors. Cameron was smart to bring Weaver into this world. Without her, his epic would be a little less grand, both in scope and personal significance.

Three and a half decades ago, pounding the streets of Manhattan and looking for her first big break, Sigourney Weaver probably never guessed that she'd be saving the cosmos. Even better, while other actors were complaining about playing to a certain sworn Comic-con demographic, she couldn't have conceived of becoming one of science fiction's most identifiable and revered names. It's telling that, even with the conclusions facing Ripley and Grace, fans still want more of both. There are always further Alien adventures swirling around the script system, and with Cameron confirming an Avatar 2, we might not have seen the last of a certain science minded matron either. As hero or heroine, voice of calm or catastrophe, there is none better than Sigourney Weaver. She remains as symbolic as she is sensible, and that makes all the otherworldly difference.

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