Jennifer Jason Leigh is incredibly versatile, with a career that’s spanned wildly different movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Anomalisa, Single White Female, The Hudsucker Proxy, Dolores Claiborne, and The Hateful Eight. She’s not always the lead, and the films she’s in are not always masterpieces—but she always makes movies better with her presence. Today, we’re sharing our six favorite sci-fi movies featuring the veteran actor.
Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor came out earlier this year (it’s newly on VOD), which means Leigh has now worked with two generations of Cronenbergs two decades apart (her David Cronenberg movie is, of course, also on this list). In this unsettling thriller, she plays Girder, the deceptively laid-back boss of a woman named Vos (Andrea Riseborough) who’s unusually talented at an unusual job: creeping into the minds of unwitting patsies, then guiding them to commit assassinations on behalf of high-paying clients. Girder initially seems like a benevolent mentor figure—she’s the literal voice in Vos’s head on each job, she’s the one who brings Vos back to reality after each kill, and she’s also grooming Vos for the plum role of being her successor.
But Girder has more pragmatic reasons for wanting Vos to stay at the top of her game: there’s a hugely lucrative new contract on the horizon. As the fragile Vos teeters between giving her estranged family a second chance and fully committing her brain to be a high-tech murder weapon, Girder is there to give her a gentle but firm push to get what she wants. Leigh’s nuanced performance shows you a woman who doesn’t seem anything like a monster, and yet has completely let go of caring about what’s right or wrong as long as the price is right.
The Jacket, which came out in 2005, is a so-so movie that’s mostly notable because of its ridiculously good cast, which includes Keira Knightley, Kris Kristofferson, Kelly Lynch, and a pre-007 Daniel Craig. Adrien Brody, then just a few years past his Oscar win, stars as Jack, a Gulf War veteran who develops amnesia after a combat injury, then develops the ability to travel through time when he’s confined to a psychiatric hospital that specializes in dicey experimental treatment methods. His time-hopping gains urgency when he learns the date, but not the cause of, his imminent death.
Think too much about the plot of The Jacket and you’ll start losing your own mind, but the one character who makes sense is Leigh’s sympathetic doctor. Yeah, she works in the sketchy hospital, but she’s the only one there watching out for the most vulnerable patients; she also spends her free time caring for a friend’s sick child. She’s trying to make a difference in her own way. When Jack comes to her for help, Leigh makes her character’s gut-level decision to buy into his time-travel story—then, when Future Jack pays her a visit pretending to be his own lookalike nephew, she needs only minimal dialogue (but a lot of fidgeting) to show how spooked she is.
In 1999, the same year as The Matrix, David Cronenberg made this very different exploration of virtual worlds that layer upon and bleed into reality, with a twisty tale of corporate espionage and distressingly fleshy electronics standing in for bullet time and all those shiny outfits. Leigh plays Allegra Geller, a superstar game designer who’s nearly killed by a disgruntled anti-gamer while she’s unveiling her latest creation. To make sure the game, titled eXistenZ, hasn’t been damaged in the fray, she “ports in”—since video games in this world literally plug directly into players’ spines—at great risk, accompanied by a reluctant colleague played by Jude Law.
eXistenZ is a cleverly scripted video game riff that aims to keep you guessing until the end, at least when you’re not gagging at all of Cronenberg’s patented body horror and gross-out touches, including the reoccurring sight of a firearm crafted out of reptile gristle and human teeth. However, Leigh was inspired casting as a geeky yet alluring wunderkind who’ll go to extreme lengths to protect her game but is unafraid to let herself have fun while she’s playing.
Luke Scott’s 2016 tale of an artificial human (Anya Taylor-Joy) who longs to be free but has trouble controlling her violent urges features Leigh as Dr. Kathy Grieff, who’s attacked by her “patient” in Morgan’s first few minutes. The sequence unfolds via the facility’s overhead surveillance cameras; we don’t see her face, but Leigh’s soothing voice is unmistakable, right up until the instant she’s stabbed in the eye. Still, she doesn’t blame Morgan, insisting “it was my mistake” to the skeptical corporate overseer (Kate Mara) who’s come to assess the damage. Though Kathy’s drugged out of her mind with a still-oozing bandage on her face, she remains optimistic; like most of her colleagues at the facility, she’s become deeply emotionally invested in the project. Her nickname for Morgan is “baby,” and she clings to that illusion far longer than she should.
As this list has shown, Leigh’s been cast as a doctor tasked with navigating slippery ethical territory more than once. Chalk it up to her ability to convey both brilliance and soulfulness, often with hints of a damaged inner life lurking below the surface. If you’re paying attention, Kathy also gets a line of dialogue in the first 10 minutes that feels like a softball insult lobbed at Mara’s character—but actually foreshadows the movie’s “assassin” twist.
Alex Garland’s 2018 adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s trippy wilderness tale is mostly about Natalie Portman’s character, Lena, who ventures into an alien-spawned region dubbed “the Shimmer” to figure out what happened to her shell-shocked husband on his own journey there. Leigh plays psychologist Dr. Ventress, who brings Lena into the fold with soft-spoken, weary energy that barely masks her own determined curiosity about the phenomenon. She’s the only one who knows Lena’s personal connection to the mission, and they share a bond over that.
Ventress has her own personal motivation, though; after obsessively studying and chronicling the Shimmer from a safe distance, she’s eager to take a closer look before succumbing to the terminal illness she’s been concealing from most everyone. And she gets there, expiring only after coming to a profound realization about what the Shimmer’s endgame is (hint: it’s the movie’s title) then fragmenting as light erupts from her body. It’s a moment that’s both sinister and full of wonder, and is Annihilation’s most memorable death by far. In a movie with some outrageous deaths—including multiple people taken out by a terrifyingly mutated bear—that’s saying something.
Is Twin Peaks sci-fi? Hear us out: throughout its run, the David Lynch series delved into parallel realities, doppelgängers, UFOs, the lingering aftereffects of the atomic bomb, sentient negative forces, time travel (maybe?), and so much more. Leigh made her mark in a crowded cast as Chantal, a new character introduced in the 2017 Showtime revival. She provides a certain amount of macabre comic relief alongside her partner in crime, Hutch, played by Tim Roth. They work for the evil version of Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), carrying out whatever unsavory tasks he orders them to do, including but not limited to brutally murdering his enemies.
It’d be tempting to call Chantal and Hutch “bumbling” if they weren’t so cocky about being efficiently deadly—but their hot streak ends when they get into a parking dispute with a well-armed Las Vegas suburbanite while staking out their next intended victim. It’s a bonkers sequence that’s only enhanced by Leigh’s commitment to having Chantal eat as many Cheetos as possible every time she’s on camera.
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