Zoe Saldana: an essential viewing guide

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First she was a blue alien; then she was a green one. But there's more to Zoe Saldana than brightly-coloured sci-fi spectacle. Sixteen years on from her debut in the romantic drama Center Stage she's built an enviable career as both a leading lady and a valued character player. Here's a quick refresher course as we wait the last few weeks for Star Trek Beyond.

Essential: Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014)

Zoe Saldana - Guardians of the Galaxy

Marvel’s biggest wild card to date threw together a cocksure Chris Pratt, an off-the-leash Dave Bautista, an animated raccoon and a CG tree. But the confident centre of that motley crew, anchoring them all with a withering glare and chivvying them into useful action, was Saldana’s Gamora, adopted daughter of Thanos and former assassin for Ronan The Accuser. Or “the green whore” as Drax calls her, although he isn’t allowed to get away with that for long. “She’s a lethal warrior and assassin, but what saves her is her righteousness,” said Saldana. “She’s a very righteous individual.”

Essential: Avatar (2009)

Zoe Saldana - Avatar

Saladana’s biggest breakthrough came as a warrior of a different hue: a blue Na’avi in James Cameron’s game-changing 3D sci-fi epic. While she was already familiar to audiences, for example for her role as Anamaria in the original Pirates Of The Caribbean, it says something about her smouldering screen presence that she was able to make such an impact in the biggest film of all time despite being performance-captured and digitally altered. This being a James Cameron film, it was replete with spectacle and military tech-fetishism. But there’s an affecting emotional core to the film too, for which Saldana does most of the heavy lifting.

Essential: Infinitely Polar Bear (2014)

Zoe Saldana - Infinitely Polar Bear

Proving that she can excel in drama as well as genre, Saldana appears in her own skin in Maya Forbes’ indie festival hit. She plays Maggie, the wife of Mark Ruffalo’s bipolar Cam. Ruffalo gets to give the big, showy performance, but it’s Saldana that proves the emotional bedrock as Cam’s long-suffering solo support network and mother of their two daughters, balancing her difficult home life with stints away in New York studying for an MBA.

Zoe Saldana - Star Trek

Back to sci-fi, and it was a brave woman that was going to fill Nichelle Nichols’ shoes (or miniskirt). Saladana’s Lieutenant Uhura is a more driven version than we’d seen in the past, as handy in a fight as at the communications desk. And while the original Star Trek had played around with Uhura attempting to reach Spock’s “human side”, Saldana gets to go even further, actually managing a relationship with the unemotional half-Vulcan.

Zoe Saldana - Out of the Furnace

A supremely masculine film in which Saldana nevertheless holds her own. She plays Lena, the former lover of Christian Bale’s taciturn mill worker, whose life has irrevocably moved on while Bale has been in prison. Her raw performance sells a tough life in a blue-collar town, balanced with a genuine lingering affection for Bale’s character and a determined commitment to moving forward rather than slipping back.

For the fan: Colombiana (2011)

Zoe Saldana in Colombiana

One of those formulaic EuropaCorp action movies (think The Transporter, Taken) overseen by Luc Besson and directed by one of his regulars (in this case Olivier Megaton), Colombiana is no classic. But if you want to see Saldana front-and-centre in a Nikita-like yarn about a kick-ass female assassin, it should tick your boxes. Logic is not the order of the day, but the violence is crunchy and Saldana carries it well.

One to avoid: Nina (2016)

Zoe Saldana - Nina

Saldana is comfortably the best thing in this Nina Simone biopic. There’s no question of her commitment to the role: it’s just that she’s given so little to work with. Picking up the legendary blues singer at the downbeat end of her life, it shows little interest in engaging with how she got there on anything but a shallow surface level, and the events and characters are all thinly sketched. Shot way back in 2012, it’s no surprise that it’s still barely been seen.