In theory, this should be a pretty straightforward list. Throw some great names into a hat, sort them, and then write some fanboy stuff about how awesome these guys are underneath. But this is Screen Rant and we aim for a higher standard here. We threw over fifty names around the office, dropped a few, added a few more, re-added ones we dropped, and then fought over the results.
This list could have easily been fifty, or a hundred, entries long and we would have still missed a fan-favourite somewhere. Truthfully, it’s because sci-fi has gifted us so many rich characters over the years that this list was so hard to compile. The genre has borrowed elements from other parts of fiction, and blended them to create some epic storytelling over the years. At the heart of good sci-fi is the characters. While special effects can take us a long way, it’s the characters at the centre of the stories that truly make us come back for more.
With sci-fi having something of a resurgence of great stories and great characters of late, we look back on those that have defined the genre so far.
Here’s The 20 Greatest Sci-Movie Characters, Ranked.
20. Furiosa – Max Max: Fury Road
It’s an impressive feat to be the breakout character of a new (kinda new) franchise when you aren’t even the title character, but Impertator Furiosa pulled it off. While Max may have been the star of Mad Max: Fury Road (and Tom Hardy was excellent as ever) it was Furiosa’s (Charlize Theron) story arc that struck a chord with audiences. At the beginning of the movie, she is Immortan Joe’s greatest enforcer and the commander of his war rig. By the end of the movie, she returns to the citadel as its saviour.
Highly intelligent, Furiosa is also a skilled warrior and strategist. And of course, she’s one heck of a driver. All this took her to the top of Immortan Joe’s ranks and earned her the name “Bag of Nails.”
Despite an initial distain for the women in her care, she slowly started to bond with them, while keeping her distance and not disclosing anything of her past besides her early origins. Eventually, she tries to lead them to the so-called green place and freedom.
Turning on her oppressive master to free captives is downright biblical in nature and Furiosa embodies some of the greatest elements of characters from classical mythology. Her courage, and example, is likely to be the centre of the ongoing adventures of the Mad Max universe.
19. The T-800 – from T2
While there have been several on-screen T-800s (the in-story explanation is that they all come off a production line looking identical) the one with the greatest story arc is the Cyberdyne Systems T-800 Model 101 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) from Terminator 2: Judgement Day.
Unlike the previous Terminator, who was sent to kill Sarah Connor before she could give birth to the future saviour of humanity, John Connor, this one was sent back by John in the future to save his teenage self from a more dangerous Terminator, the T-1000. Initially following mere programming to keep John alive, the Terminator began to learn about human emotion due to his extended time with John and Sarah. Scenes from the extended cut actually show John and Sarah removing his chip and altering it from read-only so that he could learn more effectively.
Learning about emotional pain, the Terminator expresses that it is something he can never do, but he knows why humans do it. Eventually, after destroying the T-1000, the Terminator asks Sarah to help him self-terminate as it is against his programming. In doing so, he attempts to ensure that his chip cannot be used to re-create Skynet. His sacrifice, against John’s pleas, is as heartfelt as any part of the series.
18. Malcolm Reynolds – Serenity
Despite starting out in the short-lived, but oh-so-loved, TV series Firefly, Malcolm Reynolds greatest moments came in the feature film Serenity. While Fox’s mishandling of Firefly meant that the show didn’t get the massive fan base it deserved, it did generate enough of a cult-following that the movie was green-lit. Mal’s cocky, arrogant, somewhat cynical demeanour was tempered by a greatly heroic side as he stood against his long-time enemies not out of vengeance, but a desire to do the right thing. Or as he put it “I aim to misbehave.”
The civil-war style clothing, the quick-draw revolver, and the devilish charm made Mal one of sci-fi’s most lovable rogues and quickly put him up there with Han Solo as an icon of the genre. His final battle with the operative in Serenity saw him truly ready to sacrifice all, thankfully he walked away and gave us hope that one day we will see the further adventures of Mal and his crew. It’s an unlikely dream, but don’t take the sky away from us just yet.
17. Klaatu – The Day The Earth Stood Still
With the advent of the Atomic Bomb and Rocket Science, the sci-fi of the 1950s became obsessed with invading aliens proving themselves to be invaders and conquerors. Suddenly, H.G Wells’ The War of the World’s looked altogether possible.
But while most sci-fi of the era made the aliens the bad guy (drawing on cold war paranoia), The Day The Earth Stood Still tried something truly different and became a true classic. This is down to Michael Rennie as Klaatu, the extra-terrestrial who comes to earth to warn us that our continued development of nuclear weapons would spell our doom, and the rest of the universe had noticed us and were not prepared to see us take our war-mongering beyond the confines of earth.
Klaatu isn’t a conqueror, he’s a pacifist. A softly-spoken messiah-like figure that preaches a better-way. His quiet, tender performance is truly brilliant and stands in stark contrast to the tank-destroying death ray of Gort, the silent robot that is prepared to end humanity if we do not lay down our weapons.
16. Sarah Connor – The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day
The first movie sees Sarah go from the innocent, big-haired, waitress with small dreams, to tough as nails future mother to the one-day leader of the human resistance. While it’s Kyle that blows the Terminator’s body in half, it’s Sarah that crushes it in a steel-press.
By the second movie, she’s transformed herself into a total bad-ass. In the years between the movies, she’s associated with guerrilla fighters, gun-runners, and anyone that can teach her the skills she needs to pass on to her so, John, to make him the warrior mankind needs him to be.
Linda Hamilton’s performance as Sarah in T2 is truly brilliant. In her obsession to be a warrior, she’s become as cold and unfeeling as the machines she despises. In seeing the Terminator begin to gain some humanity, Sarah begins to regain her own.
While lists like this are often dominated by male roles, it’s important to note that of all the Terminator movies, only the ones with Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor are universally considered to be the best. Overshadowed by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the marketing, Linda Hamilton is the (broken) soul of the movie and should never be underestimated, or forgotten.
15. Khan Noonien Singh – Star Trek 2: The Wrath Of Khan
While there was nothing especially wrong with Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance in Star Trek: Into Darkness, it’s Ricardo Montalban’s Khan that is truly the definitive version. Having previously appeared in the original Star Trek series (in the episode Space Seed) he was the ideal guest star to bring back as a foil for Captain (now Admiral) Kirk.
As the genetically engineered superman marooned 15 years previously by Kirk, Khan endured great suffering as the planet Ceti Alpha 5 was reduced to a desert after a cosmic explosion. Not only did many of his people die, he lost his beloved wife Marla McGivers who had previously been one of Kirk’s crew. His bitterness, combined with his incredible intellect, made him the greatest threat the crew of The Enterprise ever faced.
Despite his superior mind, Kirk’s experience won the day and Khan’s crew and their stolen ship, The Reliant, were beaten. In a last-ditch effort to take Kirk with him to the gates of Hell, Khan activates the Genesis device inside a nebula. Only Spock’s sacrifice saves the day. While Khan ultimately loses, his revenge costs Kirk and his crew dearly.
14. Marty McFly and Doc Brown – Back To The Future Trilogy
You simply can’t have one without the other, Marty and Doc are unlikely, but great, friends. Marty is the epitome of ‘80s cool, his skateboard and guitar skills as well as his rivalry with his principal would make him a legend in any John Hughes movie. Doc is the definitive mad-professor, preoccupied, brilliant, and more than a little over-caffeinated.
In any other ‘80s movie, Marty would have enlisted Doc’s help to graduate high-school and win the girl of his dreams. In Back To The Future, Marty has to find Doc in the past (after accidentally travelling back in time 30 years) and enlist Doc’s help to get home, while fighting off the advances of his own mother who is infatuated with him. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
Michael J Fox’s easy charm, modest yet not self-deprecating, has never been bettered. Christopher Lloyd’s over-the-top performance became the benchmark for mad professor’s ever since. The chemistry between the two is a joy to watch, even thirty years later. Unlike some franchises which kept going until they were hated, Back To The Future made three great movies and knew when to quit.
13. Rick Deckard – Blade Runner
There could be a strong argument to be made that Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty should be here instead, certainly he has more to do dramatically and his “Tears in the rain” line is more iconic than anything Ford says, but it’s Ford’s sulky performance as Rick Deckard in Blade Runner that made the cut.
Director Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford didn’t have great chemistry together, but that makes Ford’s Deckard such a departure from Ford’s usual persona. There’s none of the cocky charm of Han Solo or Indiana Jones. He’s a working man who hunts illegal replicants across a cyber-punk Los Angeles of 2019 in-between eating noodles from street vendors.
The neo-noir setting, the Sam Spade dialogue, and Ford’s performance are all spot-on. It’s Ford’s subtlety that gives Rutger’s Batty a chance to shine, which is why it’s so great. Few leading men can support, but here Ford nails it. With a sequel on its way, it will be interesting to see if lightning can strike twice.
12. Boba Fett – The Star Wars Saga
For a guy that is famously bad at his job (he is supposed to be one of the most dangerous men in the galaxy after all) and says very little, Boba Fett is one of the most iconic characters in the original Star Wars trilogy. Between the incredibly cool T-shaped visor, and Jeremy Bullock’s stance, Boba Fett instantly captured audience attention.
While it’s Darth Vader’s scornful “No disintegration” warning to Fett that singles him out as the bad-ass of the group of bounty hunters assembled by Vader to find Han, Leia, and the crew of the Millennium Falcon, there’s something about the way Jeremy Bullock stands that gives the performance its edge. He always has his gun to the ready, his stance always suggests he’s ready to get brutal anytime. It’s a little thing, but it carries weight.
What makes Boba Fett great, is that so little is said about him. That air of mystery meant that he’s been a fan-fiction favourite for years and allowed his character to be fleshed out in the Expanded Universe. While Attack of the Clones gave him an origin story, and not a great one at that, it didn’t diminish the enduring cool of a guy that simply stands around looking tough. Like that guy at the bar you just don’t mess with, he’s tough without ever having to tell you he is.
11. Max Rockatansky – Mad Max Saga
While Fury Road is never clear as to whether it’s a reboot or a sequel (who cares? It’s awesome either way) it’s Mel Gibson’s star-making performance in the original trilogy that made the cut.
Not only did Mad Max’s success make a star of Gibson, it also spawned numerous imitators with dozens of shot-in-the-desert post-apocalypse movies following throughout the ‘80s. while the set-pieces were cool, it’s Max himself that makes the series what it is. Mel Gibson brings just the right amount of world-weariness to the part along with an ice-cold demeanour and epic capacity for violence. The revenge he takes on the gang that killed his wife and son is as epic as any revenge-thriller.
By the second movie, Road Warrior, Max has left the life of expert driver in future Australia’s Main Force Patrol behind and is a V8 muscle-car driving cowboy. Gibson’s leather-clad repressed-rage brought something fresh to both action and sci-fi and still works despite being imitated so many times since.
10. RoboCop / Alex Murphy
Anyone other than Paul Verhoven would have made Peter Weller’s half-man, half-machine into a typical ‘80s action movie lead with witty one-liners, and a forgettable story-arch. But between Verhoven’s satire, Weller’s deadpan delivery, and even suit designer Rob Bottin’s attention to detail, RoboCop became much more than a forgettable gimmick.
In the most sadistic death scene ever, Weller’s Alex Murphy is blown to pieces by a gang of criminals led by Kurtwood Smith’s Clarence Boddicker. Given a second chance at life, he is revived as the foundation for OCP’s cybernetic super-cop. Deprived of his memories, RoboCop follows his programming and begins to fight crime day and night. In time, his memories begin to resurface and he hunts down those who killed him, leading all the way to the evil Dick Jones who had been supporting Boddicker’s gang as they forced Detroit into playing into OCP’s hands.
Weller plays the part of both Murphy and RoboCop with a tenderness and pathos unseen in most action flicks. Given that he spends most of the movie with his face covered, that’s impressive. Sadly, the sequels weren’t up to the same standard and missed the point of RoboCop’s satire, but the original’s messiah themes and assault on modern living are perhaps even more relevant now than they were in the ‘80s.
9. Captain James T Kirk – Star Trek
After 5 decades, there’s little more to say about James T Kirk that hasn’t already been said. Charming and charismatic, a leader in war and in peace, and impossibly vile, Kirk is everything a sci-fi hero should be. It’s a compliment that William Shatner’s portrayal has been sent up in everything from Galaxy Quest to Family Guy.
It’s during the three-movie arch between Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and his performance in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country that Shatner’s Kirk truly shines. He does the unthinkable for a hero. He ages. Unlike the heroes that are desperate to stay fixed in their prime, Kirk openly battles a mid-life crisis as he fights to regain the Enterprise (his true love) after accepting the rank of Admiral. He accepts fatherhood, before having his son cruelly taken away from him. His growth juxtaposed with his wish to be like Peter Pan, is an altogether human arch in a series which deals with interplanetary conflicts and unknown cosmic entities.
While a young Shatner may have been eye-candy, his middle-aged Kirk with a lust for adventure tempered with years of experience is truly great. The landscape of science fiction just wouldn’t be the same without him.
8. R2D2 – The Star Wars Saga
While The Force Awakens passes the baton to BB-8, it’s Kenny Baker’s R2-D2 from the original trilogy that makes the cut. Overlooked by almost everyone, R2-D2 saves the day at least once in every movie. Plucky, brave, often ready to go against his self-preservation programming, R2-D2 is every much the hero Luke or Han is, without ever firing a shot.
In the original movie, it’s R2 that Leia entrusts to take the Death Star plans to Obi-Wan Kenobi. Despite being purchased by Luke, R2 bravely tries to complete his mission by crossing the desert to find the former Jedi General. After completing his mission, by way of a quick trip to the Death Star and saving Leia and co from a trash compactor, R2 takes part in a daring attack on the Death Star’s exhaust port. Like so many brave rebels, he is gunned down by Darth Vader, but is saved by the end of the movie by rebel mechanics.
Throughout the series, he’s shot, stunned, electrocuted, and imprisoned. Yet he always seems to maintain a cheery attitude that contrasts the pessimistic and egotistical C-3PO. At least, we think he’s cheerful. It’s hard to tell when his dialogue is so expletive-ridden that it’s beeped-out…
7. Hal 9000
There’s a strong case to be made that 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Doctor Dave Bowman deserves this place. He’s a low-key hero that manages to journey into space, fight the out of control A.I Hal 9000, and come back to Earth as a hyper-evolved space-baby. Keir Dullea certainly looks and acts like a real astronaut, before man even stepped foot upon the moon.
But, it’s Hal 9000 itself that made the cut. And here’s why: Hal was decades ahead of its time. While other science fiction movies were highlighting the dangers of atomic weapons or alien invasions, Stanley Kubrick (from Arthur C Clarke’s novel) made a sentient computer the villain long before the real world realised that AI was even possible.
HAL, Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer, controls the in-flight systems of the Discovery 1. While elements of HAL are seen towards the end of the movie, he is generally seen as a camera lens with a red or yellow dot. His cold, calm voice is a stark contract to Dave and Frank’s emotional manner. Eventually, HAL malfunctions and is taken off-line, but his fight to survive is so human, that he tries to kill the crew in order to stave off death. Fighting to survive is a very human thing to do and it’s been replicated many times in the years since sentient machines began to pop up in cinema.
6. Rocket and Groot – Guardians Of The Galaxy
Two of the most recent additions to the list are Rocket and Groot, the break-out stars of the decade’s unlikeliest mega-hit Guardians of the Galaxy.
Rocket and Groot embody elements from the greatest sci-fi characters of all time. There’s more than a little of a young and mercenary Han Solo in Rocket, there’s a LOT of Chewbacca in Groot. They look odd together, appear to have very different moral compasses on the surface, and are largely along for the ride. But, each has so much more going on that it would appear on the surface. A lesser director would have made them mere comic relief, but James Gunn knows when he has lightning in a bottle and isn’t afraid to unleash it. In Groot he takes an 8-foot walking tree and not only makes him kind to kids (giving part of himself to a child on Knowhere was beautifully understated) but gives him a sacrifice that left grown men in tears (“We are Groot”). In Rocket, he takes a Racoon-like creature with a bad temper and a big gun and gives him a heart. Bradley Cooper is perfectly cast as his voice and manages to make him a comedic genius (“I Need that guy’s leg”) who begs Groot not to die. In the final scenes against Ronan, Rocket’s tiny hand joins the other Guardian’s as he is prepared to die defending a galaxy that has done him nothing but harm. He’s a tiny hero, but one with a massive heart.
Cinematic history is littered with great mentors. In fact, the mentor-role is one of the great archetypes of western-literature and often a hero is nothing without wise words and training for him to fall back on. So, after centuries of these characters popping up in literature and movies it’s all the more impressive that the greatest of them all should come in the form of a little green puppet.
Underestimated by Luke, Yoda proves to be strong in the force and begins to open Luke’s mind to new possibilities. He shows patience, and most importantly for a mentor, he allows Luke to fail. When Luke enters the cave and battles the dark apparitions within, Yoda is disappointed but encourages Luke to look past his mistake.
It’s a testament to the voice and puppetry skills of Frank Oz that Yoda truly comes alive. The CGI Yoda of the prequels is never as good. Also overlooked is Mark Hammil. His ability to act alongside a puppet while on a soundstage full of swamp water is impressive.
4. Ellen Ripley – Alien Saga
Of all the traits a sci fi hero needs to have, bravery, wit, cunning, humanity, leadership, most have had two or three, Ellen Ripley has them all. She’s a rare thing in cinema, a truly rounded character. More nuanced than her male counterparts often are, she’s deeply flawed and only becomes more so as her story continues. Unlike those characters that only get stronger, she gets progressively more and more broken by her experiences.
In her first appearance in Alien, she’s not especially likable. She’s one of the crew, not a leader, but not afraid to stand up to her captain. Truthfully, it’s Captain Dallas that looks most likely to survive the ordeal to begin with, so it’s a twist to see him die two-thirds of the way through.
By the second movie, Ripley is suffering extreme post-traumatic stress disorder. Her experiences on the Nostromo have left her so traumatised that she is on the verge of a breakdown. Especially so when she realised she’s been in hypersleep for 57 years and her daughter has died in the time since she was last on Earth. During the events of Aliens, she becomes a mother figure to the orphaned Newt, and seems to put her demons to rest after destroying the aliens on LV426.
3. Han Solo – Star Wars Saga
The ultimate cinematic lovable rogue, Han Solo is far from the archetypical hero in his first appearance. He’s a loner and a smuggler, out for himself with loyalty only to his first-mate Chewbacca. His cynical nature, and seen-it-all-before attitude is the perfect foil for the naïve Luke Skywalker. While Luke has the better story arch, from farm boy to rebel hero, to the man that saves his father’s soul, Han is by for the more interesting character.
Beyond the good looks and cocky swagger, Han has the coolest ship in sci fi history. Sure, it looks like garbage, but “It’s got it where it counts.” He also has Chewie. If you’re going to be a loner with only one friend in all the galaxy, you can’t do better than a giant space-bear who will rip the arms off of anyone who crosses you.
2. Spock – Star Trek
It’s only logical that Spock be close to the top of the list. While Kirk may have had the easy-going charm, Spock is the more interesting character. His resourceful, intelligent mind may have saved the day several times, but it was his inner-struggle with his human half that gave him the greater narrative tension.
Often seen as the high point of the series, his self-sacrifice to restore power to the Enterprise at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is, on the surface, entirely logical. As he puts it “The needs of the many, outweigh the needs of the one.” But it’s also so very human. He gives his life for his shipmates, his true family. Even as he lay dying, he asks if they are out of danger. His heartfelt goodbye to Kirk is as emotional as any moment in the series.
Of course, Spock cheats death even more successfully than Kirk and eventually has his mind and body restored. His friends risk everything to save him, testament to his importance to them. (And to us, because Star Trek wouldn’t be the same without him)
1. Darth Vader – Star Wars
It’s not often that the bad guy is the fan-favourite, but right from the start Darth Vader captured the audience’s attention. Stepping through the destroyed bulkhead, his shiny black armour a stark contrast to the white of the Alderaanian cruiser and white armour of his Stormtroopers, his scuba-gear breathing apparatus set him apart from the rest. Over time, he goes from being Tarkin’s enforcer (remember, he takes orders from Tarkin in Star Wars) to a main character, eventually revealed to be Luke’s Father and the central character of the saga.
His journey back from darkness, to save his son from The Emperor, costs him his life. But, he dies in the light and is re-united with his former friends in the afterlife. Despite the many horrors he takes part in as Vader, the light remained within him enough that Luke could ignite it once more.
His fall, and rise, are not unlike the struggle many people face as they try to avoid temptation, and fail. But his ultimate redemption showed that faith, in the force, in his son, and in himself, can save even the most broken soul.
With so many great characters, it’s inevitable that there’s a few fan-favourites that didn’t make the cut that perhaps could have. Do you think Lando Calrissian deserves to be here? Or maybe Kyle Reese or Tuck Pendleton? Let us know who your favourite is in the comments!
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