One of the things that struck me about Avatar upon re-watching it was how balanced the cast was between men and women. It's a bit depressing that in 2010 this is still something which is notable in a major action blockbuster. Of the eight or nine main characters, four of them are female and all of them have major roles in the narrative. Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana, Michelle Rodriguez and CCH Pounder are all key characters, representing some of the best acting work in the whole film and in most cases providing the emotional heat for Cameron's grand adventure.
The reason that this leapt out at me was after watching Daybreakers on Friday. My love of trashy vampire films continues unabated. The film is a perfect example of some intriguing ideas that are wedded to an irritating and generic main plot. I like how vampirism is used as a metaphor for corporatism run amok It may not be hugely original, but at least it makes a change from using them as a vehicle for frustrated sexual urges. The design work is well done and the devolved vampire/bat hybrids are nicely ooky. And though Ethan Hawke does his usual humourless, irritating, charisma-free performance, Sam Neill and Willem Dafoe give plenty of vim and vigour in support and really help sell the material.
But I came out of the film royally pissed off. For the first half of the film, it sets up a pretty intriguing female character – a human survivor of the virus who has remained on the run from being captured by vampires. This is a woman who has displayed intelligence and bravery and seems like a natural to lead the action in the final act. But instead, she is gradually sidelined until she becomes a weak and bland damsel in distress. Remove her from the last act and it would change nothing about the plot.
This has become such a usual way for action and genre films to treat women that I shouldn't be surprised. I shouldn't be surprised that this character is also practically the only woman in the film (Sam Neill does have a daughter who has a small and potentially fascinating plotline but it is rudely truncated and its denouement, which the filmmakers desperately want to freight with emotional resonance is laughably bad). But I am starting to get tired of it. Think of any action film that has a group as its central focus – the group will generally have a token female, who is usually the love interest and that's it. It represents nothing so much as a depressing lack of imagination.
That's why I give Cameron props. He likes strong women and he doesn't feel like they should come at the expense of strong men. The roles he gives to women are more than the romantic love interest – they are some of the prime movers of his plots.
Going back to Daybreakers – it wouldn't have meant much to have changed some of those roles to make them female. Sam Neill's character doesn't need to be a man. In fact, neither does Willem Dafoe. Ethan Hawke's brother could easily be his sister. I am not advocating any kind of quota system, just wishing writers would display a bit more imagination when they are actually writng.