Nothing pulls a viewer into a story like an unexpected demise of a character, and directors have been astonishing film-goers with onscreen deaths since the invention of the medium. Some of the most memorable and shocking death scenes ever committed to film can be found in Hollywood classics like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.
However, since the science fiction genre specializes in alternative universes, alien creatures, and futuristic technologies, it should come as no surprise that sci-fi stories offer filmmakers plenty of opportunities to stage imaginative and unexpected ways for movie characters to bite the dust. Although it is difficult to say which of the many death scenes in the history of sci-fi films have unnerved audiences the most, here are seven sci-fi film deaths that still have the power to shock and amaze viewers today. Spoiler alert: Movie fans who haven’t experienced the following sci-fi death scenes in context may want to skip the film selections they haven’t seen yet, or watch all the films in full first.
1. Alien (1979) Kane’s “Chestburster” Death
Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi film Alien spawned three sequels, two crossover films with the Predator franchise, and one prequel. It also spawned one of the most memorable and shocking death scenes in the history of science fiction films. The film stars Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, one of the crew members of the deep space vessel Nostromo. After landing on a supposedly uninhabited planet to investigate a mysterious radio signal, several of the crew members set out to explore an abandoned alien spaceship.
Kane, a character played by John Hurt, is attacked by a bizarre “facehugger” alien while inside the deserted spaceship. Unbeknownst to him and the rest of the crew, the creature has implanted an egg inside Kane that will later gruesomely “hatch” during the crew’s mealtime. Although Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley went on to become the primary character throughout the subsequent Alien movie sequels, John Hurt’s Kane may have left the deepest impression on sci-fi fans, thanks to this shocking death scene.
2. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) Darth Maul’s Bisection
The Phantom Menace marked George Lucas’s return to the director’s chair twenty-two years after directing the original Star Wars film in 1977. The long-awaited prequel to the highly-successful Star Wars trilogy was a box office smash, although it disappointed some fans with its heavy reliance on computer-generated special effects, an altered concept of the “Force,” and the inclusion of a poorly-conceived character named Jar Jar Binks.
However, the film also introduced one of the franchise’s most menacing and memorable characters in the form of Darth Maul, a horned Sith Lord played by Ray Park. In the film, Darth Maul uses a double-bladed lightsaber to kill Qui-Gon Jinn, the Jedi master played by Liam Neeson. A young Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by Ewan McGregor, pursues Darth Maul after witnessing Qui-Gon’s death and eventually defeats him after a spectacular lightsaber battle. Although Lucas went on to make two more Star Wars prequels after The Phantom Menace, Darth Maul’s demise at the hands of Obi-Wan still ranks as one of the most shocking character deaths seen so far in the Star Wars franchise.
Or is Darth Maul really dead? It should be noted that in the expanded Star Wars universe there are storylines in which Darth Maul actually survives his bisection. However, it is unclear if the upcoming films will follow suit.
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Frank Poole’s Asphyxiation
Stanley Kubrick’s influential space saga set the standard for science fiction films for years to come with its groundbreaking special effects and its themes covering extraterrestrial life and artificial intelligence. After a black monolith discovered beneath the surface of the moon transmits a radio signal toward Jupiter, a spacecraft is dispatched to investigate. While most of the crew is in cryogenic hibernation, Dr. David Bowman (played by Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (played by Gary Lockwood) remain awake to run the ship with the help of an advanced artificial intelligence named H.A.L. 9000.
After “Hal” makes an error about a faulty antenna component, Bowman and Poole become concerned that the computer is starting to malfunction. After deciding to shut Hal down, Poole takes a spacewalk in an attempt to replace the antenna component. Suddenly, in a scene that shocked moviegoers, Hal uses one of the spacecraft’s pods to sever Poole’s oxygen line and set him adrift in space, where he presumably asphyxiates.
4. District 9 (2009) Exploding Man Death
This independent South African production was a surprise hit and introduced director Neill Blomkamp to a worldwide audience. The film portrays a dystopian alternate reality where a large group of extraterrestrial refugees have landed on Earth and have been forced to live in a segregated government camp known as “District 9.” Sharlto Copley stars as Wikus van de Merwe, a bureaucrat who has been tasked with resettling the aliens into a new internment camp by first serving them all with eviction notices. The aliens in the film are widely hated by their human hosts and are disparagingly referred to as “prawns” for the strikingly shrimp-like appearance. One character defends the term, saying, “I mean, you can’t say they don’t look like that. That’s what they look like, right? They look like prawns.”
After coming into contact with an unknown fluid that Wikus attempted to confiscate from an alien, he begins to mutate into a “prawn.” This leads to Wikus being persecuted by his own government and eventually allows him to access the aliens’ advanced weaponry. Wikus subsequently uses the alien weaponry against various soldiers attempting to kill him, including the unfortunate man seen in the unforgettable clip above.
5. Moon (2009) Clone Death
Moon, the first feature film from director Duncan Jones — son of David Bowie — tells the story of a solitary worker who operates a mining base located on the moon. Sam Bell, played by Sam Rockwell, believes that he will return to Earth after completing his three-year contract. Sam passes his time working on models and chatting with an artificial intelligence name GERTY.
However, an accident soon reveals that Sam is not alone on the moon. After rescuing an identical “Sam” from a crashed rover, both “Sams” eventually discover that they are clones with a mere three-year lifespan. Instead of being returned to Earth, the clones are simply incinerated after three years of service. In one of the eeriest scenes ever portrayed in a sci-fi film, the older Sam Bell helps his younger clone escape as he slowly succumbs to his inevitable death by deterioration.
6. 12 Monkeys (1995) James Cole Remembering His Own Death
Based on an innovative French short film called La Jetée, Terry Gilliam’s film portrays a dystopian future where the survivors of a devastating worldwide plague live underground. James Cole, played by Bruce Willis, is selected to travel back through time in order to obtain information that may help the survivors develop a cure for the virus that wiped out most of humanity. However, if science fiction has taught us anything, it’s that unexpected things are bound to occur when you time travel.
Throughout the film, James is haunted by dreams of a familiar-looking man dying in a woman’s arms. After discovering that the source of the outbreak was a mad virologist, James pursues the man through an airport with a handgun. Not surprisingly, James is soon fatally shot by the police. Although the cause of James’s death is mundane by sci-fi standards, the film gives the scene a creepy twist when it becomes apparent that a young child who witnessed the shooting is James from the past.
7. Gattaca (1997) Jerome Morrow’s Incineration Suicide
Directed by Andrew Niccol, Gattaca portrays a future society that is obsessed with genetic perfection. The protagonist of the story, Vincent Freeman (played by Ethan Hawke), dreams of traveling into space but is prevented from qualifying for the space travel program because of his inferior genes.
However, Vincent is able to game the system by “borrowing” the genetic profile of Jerome Morrow (played by Jude Law), a suicidal paralyzed man who was conceived through the society’s eugenics program. Because his injury precludes him from benefiting from his “superior” genes, Jerome allows Vincent to use his genetic material to qualify for the space travel program.
Although Vincent pays Jerome for the use his genetic profile, the two eventually become friends. After Vincent successfully secures a place on a rocket, Jerome provides him with enough genetic material to last him the rest of his life. As Vincent’s rocket launches into space, Jerome climbs into an incinerator to kill himself and remove the one thing left standing in the way of Vincent truly becoming Jerome.
Follow Nathanael on Twitter @ArnoldEtan_WSCS
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