Every great sci-fi movie needs a coward. Someone who, when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, becomes so contemptibly spineless, audiences ultimately find themselves either laughing at the character’s expense or urging on their imminent demise. These softies can help move the story along or provide some welcome respite from the unfolding chaos. They also, invariably, end up being among the most memorable characters on screen, often played by all-too-familiar character actors with an IMDB page a mile long.
They run, they hide, they often scream hysterically, and, every once in a while, they do something so dastardly, they almost cross the line from coward to outright villain.
No, every great sci-fi movie needs a coward and is all the better for it. So rather than celebrate the many heroes and heroines of films like Alien, The Thing or The Fifth Element, it’s high time someone toasted the yellow among us with the 15 most cowardly sci-fi movie characters.
16 General Owen – Starship Troopers
Marshall Bell has made a career out of playing yellow-bellied types, and he was certainly in his element as General Owen in Paul Verhoeven’s deliberately over the top Starship Troopers.
The lone survivor of a mass bug attack on Planet “P”, Owen starts as he means to go on in Starship Troopers, crashing out of a locker, having been hiding from the arachnid, rather than standing up and fighting alongside his fellow troops. His cowardice is immediately apparent, and Michael Ironside’s Lieutenant Rasczak is visibly unimpressed from the get go. From there, Owen spends the majority of his remaining screen time staggering round, screaming, and being entirely unhelpful.
When he does finally meet his maker, getting himself skewered to death on a randomly sharp bit of bug debris, it’s a blessing for everyone involved.
15 Carter Burke/Private Hudson – Aliens
The true coward at the heart of James Cameron’s Aliens remains the source of some debate. Maybe there are two, maybe there’s just one, or perhaps there might be none at all, but you can certainly make a case for either one of these guys.
In the one corner, you have the late, great Bill Paxton’s Private Hudson, a seemingly super-cocky colonial marine who is reduced to a blubbering wreck at the first sign of Xenomorph trouble on LV-426. But then, Hudson does manage to regain his composure, and he definitely goes down fighting.
The opposite is true of Paul Reiser’s Carter Burke, though. When things start to go wrong early on in their mission, Burke is among the most level-headed people out there, though he remains a die-hard company man. Even when the dropship sent to rescue them crash lands, he’s upbeat, suggesting they make a fire, sing songs, and await rescue.
It’s only later that he turns full coward. Setting a pair of facehuggers on Ripley and Newt while they sleep in a lab, in an attempt to get a specimen smuggled back to Earth, Burke reacts to being rumbled by essentially running away, eventually getting his comeuppance.
14 Joan Lambert – Alien
Lambert is such a huge coward in Ridley Scott’s original Alien, it’s difficult to think of her doing anything much other than crying, bickering with Ripley, and occasionally screaming in the film.
Which is a shame in a way, because Lambert could have actually made a real difference to the situation if she’d just calmed down a little bit. Think about it; she made a real mess of reading the tracking device while Dallas was hunting the rogue Xenomorph crawling through the Nostromo’s air vents. She also did nothing other than stand and watch on, petrified with fear, as Parker met his end at the hand of the same alien. She could have done anything. Run, fight, hide -- anything. Instead, petrified with fear, she essentially stood and awaited death, which duly arrived.
13 Windows – The Thing
Thomas Waites' hapless radio operator and all-round Arctic hipster, Windows, plays an integral role in helping the unfolding chaos of John Carpenter’s The Thing along.
When we first meet him, in the wake of the Norwegians’ strange, suicidal appearance, Windows is struggling to contact anyone from their remote ice station and is already close to despair.
It only gets worse from there. When Blair, the group’s doctor, decides the only way to prevent the alien from reaching civilization is to destroy the group's means of transport and communication, Windows provides little in the way of resistance as Blair takes an axe to their radio equipment.
Later, when it’s already been established that Windows is human, he also fails to act quickly when Palmer reveals himself to be the creature. Awestruck by what is going on – much like audiences at home – Windows ends up being killed and assimilated into the mysterious alien with suitably gory results. At least Kurt Russell’s MacReady is on hand to incinerate him on the spot.
12 Ruby Rhod – The Fifth Element
Ruby Rhod is a divisive character to fans of The Fifth Element. Many detractors would have you believe his brash, overbearing presence has a negative impact on Luc Besson’s wildly inventive sci-fi epic. But much of that has to do with Chris Tucker’s deliberately over-the-top performance as the kind of annoying radio host -- firing off MTV-esque soundbites at a mile a minute -- that has become all too familiar to millions.
The real genius of Tucker’s performance becomes clear once things start to unravel on the luxury cruise liner where Bruce Willis’ Korben Dallas goes in search of the element stones. With the Mangalores on board and gunning for Dallas, Rhod finds himself caught in the crossfire and, though he does kill one Mangalore, spends much of the time screaming and crying. And to think, they originally wanted Prince, rather than Tucker, for the part.
11 Emil Antonowsky – Robocop
Paul McCrane’s Emil Antonowsky served as the baby of Clarence Broddicker’s group of thugs in Robocop in more ways than one. Far and away the youngest of the ne’er-do-wells that end up blasting Peter Weller’s Alex Murphy to bits, Antonowsky is also the first of the group to encounter Robocop, and it doesn’t go well.
Attempting to rob a gas station at the time, Antonowsky ends up losing his nerve when faced with the reincarnated cyborg-version of a cop he thought he’d previously helped kill – mind you, who wouldn’t in that sort of situation?
In any case, Antonowsky ends up blowing up the gas station in an attempt to kill off Robocop before making his escape, like any good coward, on a motorbike. He doesn’t get far, with Murphy emerging from the flames and taking him down. After a brief stint in prison, he returns to Broddicker’s gang in time for the big finale – where he ends up getting doused with toxic waste, turning him into a mutant. Cowards always get the best death scenes, don’t they?
10 Dr. Peter Silberman
As Dr. Peter Silberman, Earl Boen has the honour of being the only actor to appear in all three of the first Terminator films as the same character – Arnold Schwarzenegger was a different robot in each film, after all.
Boen does a fine job too as the inept criminal psychologist and all-round Terminator sceptic Dr. Silberman. At no point does Dr. Silberman ever buy into the idea of a future in which man has become enslaved by machines. He interrogates Kyle Reese upon his arrival in the present day in Terminator, immediately debunking his story of nuclear apocalypse as a psychological disorder. Even years later, when treating Sarah Connor at Pescadero State Hospital, he still views her as mentally unsound, despite narrowly-avoiding the massacre that plays out at the police station where the authorities are holding Reese in the first film.
More importantly, he’s a coward and one that's easily overpowered by Sarah Connor, holding a syringe to his neck, as she makes her escape from the mental ward. After they flee, pursued by a strange, liquid-based man, Dr Silberman reacts like any good coward, and faints.
9 Donald Gennaro – Jurassic Park
Martin Ferrero’s Donald Gennaro is front and center for arguably one of the most memorable moments in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park -- and yet it could have been so different. The character of Gennaro actually survives his ordeal on the island in Michael Crichton’s novel and is painted in a far more favorable light than he is in Spielberg’s film.
A lawyer representing the inventors behind John Hammond’s Jurassic Park, Gennaro is your classic bottom line character, more concerned with profit potential than people. If they were ever to meet, you get the feeling Gennaro and Aliens' Carter Burke would get on like a house on fire.
Gennaro's true moment of crowning cowardly glory comes during their disastrous tour of the park when, confronted by a cut loose T-Rex, he deserts a car full of kids to go and hide in a toilet cubicle. What follows next is burned into the memories of many an adolescent – the horrific yet hilarious sight of a grown man being eat by a dinosaur on the toilet. It gets better and better with repeat viewing.
8 Albert Nimzicki – Independence Day
James Rebhorn’s Albert Nimzicki is the worst Secretary of Defense a President could ever wish for during a hostile alien invasion and a constant hindrance to events in Independence Day. Nimzicki’s first cowardly act comes with the decision not to inform the POTUS and Chief of Staff about humanity’s previous recorded encounters with the same alien race now blowing up our most beloved monuments. Had he acted quickly, then there’s every chance Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore could have organized a more effective and quicker counter attack than the one they eventually succeed with.
Nimzicki had access to their alien technology, but chose to keep quiet about it for fear of losing his job. He even backs the futile plans to launch nuclear weapons against the alien ships, with disastrous results.
Even when the film’s final plan of attack is being formulated, Nimzicki is the main naysayer, prompting President Whitmore to label him a “snivelling weasel” before firing him on the spot.
7 Jack Jeebs – Men In Black
Jeebs may come across as a hilariously spineless character in Men In Black, but when you think about it, he may just rank among the most despicable lifeforms in the known galaxy.
Using an ordinary looking pawn shop as a front, Tony Shaloub’s sweat-glazed alien actually deals in questionably obtained objects. More specifically, he sells alien weaponry to unlicensed beings. Being an intergalactic arms dealer is pretty reprehensible, and when Tommy Lee Jones’ Kay ends up blasting his head off, only for it to grow back, you understand the stone-faced agent's frustrations.
After all, it is Jeebs that ends up selling the reverberating carbonizer to Vincent D’Onofrio’s unlicensed cephalopoid, setting in motion the destructive events that play out. Lacking any real morals or courage, you can only assume such sentiments are alien on Jeebs’ home planet.
6 J.F. Sebastian – Blade Runner
J.F. Sebastian may be a movie coward of epic proportions, but he’s one that comes with some mitigating circumstances. Stuck on Earth due to a medical condition called "Methuselah Syndrome," William Sanderson’s Blade Runner character ages prematurely, meaning he is a whole lot more innocent and naïve than he first appears.
Only 25 despite looking a whole lot older, Sebastian is still easily duped by Daryl Hannah’s Pris into letting the Replicants stay in his vast and largely unused home, filled with his rather pathetic robot toy friends. He also puts up little in the way of a fight when Roy Batty turns up on the scene, meekly taking the Replicant to meet his maker, Dr. Tyrell, in an encounter that proves fatal to both himself and the creator of the Replicants. Had Sebastian shown even the slightest backbone at any stage, things might have gone differently for Tyrell, Batty, and perhaps even Deckard.
5 Donald Harris – 28 Weeks Later
It doesn’t take long for Robert Carlyle’s Don to show his cowardly colors in this gore-filled follow-up to 28 Days Later. Things start innocently enough, with Don and his wife Alice preparing a meal in their home. It’s only when an innocent boy, followed by a horde of zombies, arrives that things start to unravel.
With his home overrun, Don attempts to make an escape from an upstairs window with his wife Alice, but she refuses to leave without the boy they met earlier. Rather than stay and help her, however, Don does the dastardly thing and gets himself the hell out of there, leaving his partner behind to die.
When Alice is later discovered, seemingly alive and well, Don adds insult to injury, breaking quarantine to see her and offer an apology for leaving her behind. It doesn’t go well, as she’s a carrier of the zombie virus, and his encounter kicks off a major outbreak in the quarantine zone. All because he wanted to make himself feel better about outright abandoning the mother of his children to die.
4 C-3PO – Star Wars
One of the original sci-fi movie cowards, C-3PO must have been programmed to react to almost every tricky situation with a mixture of shock and fear. Perhaps, in time, a standalone prequel movie will offer up some sort of explanation for this, but until then, let’s just bask in the yellow-bellied robot antics.
Then again, C-3PO’s cowardice perfectly complements the stoic, noise-based musings of R2-D2, with the pair’s contrasting styles often combining to great effect throughout the Star Wars movies. But while C-3PO’s fearful demeanor is all well and good in A New Hope, it’s fair from helpful in The Empire Strikes Back, where he fails to warn the others about the trap lying in wait on Cloud City.
He’s also a bit of an all-round negative nelly, constantly issued omens like “We’re doomed!” in the face of adversity and telling Han Solo the odds when everyone knows he doesn't like that. Honestly, he must be exhausting to be around for more than a couple of hours.
3 George McFly – Back To The Future
It takes a special kind of wimp to require help from their future offspring in hooking up with the future mother of his children, but George McFly is definitely that guy. Early on in Back to the Future, viewers get a glimpse of the dark side of McFly, who seemingly spends evenings watching women undress in their homes through binoculars from the vantage point of a tree perfectly positioned outside their homes.
At this point, Marty McFly would be forgiven for thinking there is no hope for his future Pop, but he preservers, despite George’s continued wimpy behavior, particularly when encountering high school bully Biff.
Crispin Glover is suitably awkward as the older McFly, imbuing the character with a nervous, uncomfortable demeanor that makes him a coward, but a coward you kind of end up rooting for, despite his faults. It’s worth noting too that, by the end of the movie, he’s been transformed in the present day to a successful and noticeably more dynamic individual.
The only real shame is that Glover’s refusal to return for Back to the Future Part II prevented the character from being explored further.
2 Guy Fleegman – Galaxy Quest
This early breakout role for Sam Rockwell is something of a comedic take on Star Trek and the show’s old habit for killing off any secondary characters that may accompany Kirk and the gang on a mission. Guy soon realizes that this may be his fate when surrounded by the famous stars of Galaxy Quest on a real-life mission, and he spends much of the rest of the movie darting around trying to help, but also trying to ensure that he doesn't end up meeting a sticky end.
A witty pastiche of events on the USS Enterprise, Galaxy Quest was well received upon its release, with Rockwell earning praise for his cowardly comedic performance as Guy. Even his name, Guy, is designed to demonstrate his expendable status.
1 Dr. Raymond Cocteau – Demolition Man
The gloriously silly Demolition Man may be most memorable for the face-off between Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes, but it’s the late Nigel Hawthorne’s performance as Dr. Raymond Cocteau that almost steals the show.
Thawed out from cryo-prison to track down Snipes’ Simon Phoenix, Stallone’s John Spartan wakes up in a world without guns, without violence, and without any restaurant other than Taco Bell. It’s all down to Cocteau, who, as it turns out, also has a dastardly plan to use Phoenix to assassinate Dennis Leary’s Edgar Friendly, the leader of a secret underground society of people opposed to Cocteau’s clean-living, no-swearing standards.
Keen for someone else to do his dirty work, Cocteau’s cowardice is further compounded by the fact that he has Phoenix programmed to prevent the violent criminal from turning on him. Unfortunately for Cocteau, he failed to do the same with any of the additional criminals Phoenix thaws out to help him in his evil plan, and the not-so-good doctor ends up being the architect of his own demise.
Did we miss anyone? Be sure to leave a comment naming your favorite movie coward!