I'm not going to turn this into a long essay about gender roles in genre pictures, but I think it's worth pointing out an oddity. In an era where mainstream blockbusters often shunt women to the sidelines or give them poorly written roles awkwardly inserted into the narrative so that it won't be an all-boys club, there is one genre where women thrive: video game films. While the video game industry has been making inroads with female gamers over the last decade (as of 2009, 40% of gamers are female and 34% are women over 18), the fact remains that video games are inherently geared towards young males and their stereotypical interests. Yet, by accident or by design, quite a few notable video game adaptations, including three full-blown franchises, feature female action leads.
We have the Resident Evil series, where Milla Jovovich teams up with Michelle Rodriguez and Ali Larter at various points in the ongoing series. In that never-ending zombie death match, the fact that our heroes happen to be women is never really commented on, it's just accepted as a matter of circumstance (and, even more worthwhile, the marketing never really plays up the sexuality of the leads, but rather their ass-kicking abilities). We have the Tomb Raider series, which gave Angelina Jolie her first action franchise, and whose first entry still stands as the highest-grossing video game adaptation ever in the US (with $131 million in domestic box office). We have Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which featured an uncommonly spiritual heroine (Ming Na) who preached peace while a slumming James Woods called for war.
We have Bloodrayne, the Uwe Boll stinker that starred Kristina Loken as a vampire/human hybrid who saved the world from Ben Kingsley (always a worthwhile goal). For what it's worth, there have been two direct-to-DVD sequels to that one. We have Silent Hill, which involved Radha Mitchell and her daughter Jodelle Ferland trapped in an alternate dimension of otherworldly evil, while husband Sean Bean simply waited and worried. Oddly enough, Sean Bean co-starred in The Dark, a low-key supernatural thriller an almost identical plot and finale, just a year prior to the 2006 video game adaptation. We've got the barely released DOA: Dead or Alive, which starred Devon Aoki, Jaime Pressley, Natassia Malthe, Saraa Carter, and Holly Valleceas as ass-kicking participants in a Mortal Kombat style tournament run by the evil Eric Roberts. And finally, just last year, we had a reboot of the Street Fighter franchise, which highlighted Kristin Kreuk as Chun-Li in Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li.
Were all of these films good? Many of them are terrible. The Legend of Chun-Li is an embarrassment, despite the brilliantly awful performance of Chris Klein. I've long stated my loathing of the first Tomb Raider picture, as well as my regards for the second, Cradle of Life. And I've only recently caught up with the Resident Evil sequels, having been bored silly by the first film in 2002. But Silent Hill has some genuine menace as some striking and unsettling visuals, while DOA has some shockingly well-constructed action sequences amidst the cheese. And many of these films were box office flops, as only the Resident Evil series, the Tomb Raider series, and Silent Hill made any kind of money. But the important thing about these pictures is that the treat the idea of a female action/horror star not as a fluke, but simply as 'no big deal'.
In an era where the idea of Angelina Jolie simply playing a spy in a generic action thriller gets oodles of punditry from all circles, where a live-action Wonder Woman can't seem to get off the ground, and where Noomi Rapace's reward for headlining The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (and two sequels) is to star as 'the token girl' in Sherlock Holmes 2, it's good to see one genre, however marginalized, that embraces female action heroes/female genre leads not as a sign of progress, but as a matter of course.
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