I grew up reading science fiction, thinking my beloved genre was all about the possibilities of the infinite: advanced civilizations inhabiting distant star systems; men with brains so large and hearts so beneficent they could barely be contained within their bodies; women with beauty so magnificent and intellect so stunning they would leave bystanders breathless.
And they I started watching movies and eventually realized it's all about death, destruction ... and more death.
This week's release of The Final Destination, which is obsessed with staging elaborate 'kill scenes,' got me thinking about memorable scenes of demise in science fiction films. Sci-fi is notably short of serial killers, but offers a wider range of death scenes, beyond simple murder and mayhem. Here's my list of the top 10 sci-fi deaths. (Of necessity, this list is nothing but spoilers, so you have been warned.)
1. The Emperor (Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi)
Everyone knows where they were when they saw the Emperor get what was coming to him. Me, I was in the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles, opening night, second showing, near 5:00 a.m., shouting (and ultimately cheering and applauding) along with the rest of the sold-out auditorium as Luke looked between his father and the Emperor, in pain, agonizing, understanding that the man he had hated was being tortured by the man who should be hated. And then he made the right call. Goosebumps still raise up in the glory of the memory.
2. Lambert (Alien)
It's tough to choose just one. Kane's little stomach problem, Dallas' encounter in a tight space, Ash's milky spray -- those are all startling and scary, but the most gut-wrenching is Lambert, because she didn't have to die. If she could have just moved out of the way, she might have saved both herself and Parker, but she stood there, paralyzed with fear, blubbering, and died horribly. When I was younger, I mocked her stupidity, but as I've gotten older, I've become more sympathetic to her plight. Sure, we all want to be Ripley, all manly and macho (and all woman, I know), the courageous hero. In real life, though, we're more likely to be Lambert, which makes her death all the more difficult to watch.
3. Frank Poole (2001: A Space Odyssey)
Sure, the unplugging of HAL is torturous yet fascinating, and one of the more imaginative death scenes in all of science fiction, but repeat after me: HE'S AN INANIMATE OBJECT (no matter how childlike he sounds when singing "Daisy"). And the sequence that precipitates HAL's unplugging by Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) comes as a greater, more effective shock, one that still haunts me. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) is on a minor repair mission outside the ship when HAL cuts him loose. Poole goes flying, tumbling through space, a tiny figure in the dark expanse of deep space. There are no famous last words, no tearful goodbyes, no rueful regrets. He's just gone.
4. Roy Batty (Blade Runner)
As the replicant who wants to live, yet knows his time is up, Rutger Hauer gives his best performance ever in his last scene, the rain pouring down, in agony, struggling to the last breath of his artificial being, more human than his pursuer, Deckard (Harrison Ford). You can feel the beating of the wings of angels in that scene. Really, even though the story is about replicants wanting to be human, it's more about humans who should be more like replicants.
5. Anonymous Crew Members (Forbidden Planet)
When the monster first attacks, with everyone dug in and ready to battle it out, the weird electronic sounds are kinda freaky. Then it appears as a sort of electronic chalk outline of a ferocious creature and stars picking up crew members and flinging them through the air, which in its own way is even worse than being eaten alive, because you have to imagine the crunching sound their bones made when they cracked against the rocks. 'Beware! Monsters of the Id! The Id! The Id!' This totally freaked me out when I first saw it as a kid, and, even today, I still get nervous watching this scene.
6. Corporate Dude (RoboCop)
Yes, the death of Office Alex J. Murphy (Peter Weller) is definitely memorable and gruesome, but it's more a triumph of squib technology than anything else. What really caught my eye -- and set up the movie as a vicious bastard of a sci-fi flick -- is the first corporate boardroom meeting, when the ED-209 goes crazy and blasts one unfortunate suit to smithereens. Honorable mention: director Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall and Starship Troopers -- pick a death scene, any death scene, in Verhoeven's movies, and they usually blow the competition away.
7. Darryl Revok (Scanners)
While Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) doesn't really look like viable competition to Revok (Michael Ironside), he finally gets the better of him in the spectacular vein-popping climax. It's what the movie has been building up to all along, and broad hints have been dropped throughout that death is the only way to stop Revok, but director David Cronenberg is still able to build the tension to an unbearable point, so that the Vale vs. Revok duel is truly mind-shattering (in more ways than one).
8. Hot Tub Dude (Species)
Hey, you might be a creep, but if you're going to die, it might as well be after you've tasted the exotic beauty of Sil (Natasha Henstridge), naked in a hot tub, thinking that you're the luckiest man on the face of the -- hurk! -- ow, that hurts! I could think of a lot worse ways to go ... like that unfortunate train conductor when Sil is experiencing growing pains. On a scale of 1-10, the yuck factor in that one was an 11.
9. Adrienne (Jason X)
As always, it's tough to pick just one, but it's hard to shake the image of the beautiful Adrienne (Kristi Angus) getting her face shoved into liquid nitrogen and then having her head shatter. Literally. All over the floor. What a mess. What a waste. And not a very flattering final image, either, poor thing. Then again, Jason has never been much interested in the results of his murderous rampages. One quick glance, and he's off to the next victim.
10. Sol Roth (Soylent Green)
Sol (Edward G. Robinson) has had enough. With the earth becoming overcrowded to the extreme, with culture decimated, with all his friends -- save Thorn (Charlton Heston), who doesn't really need him -- long gone, Sol knows that he's outlived his time, and so he decided to end it all in one of the more peaceful, heartbreaking scenes in sci-fi movie history. Knowing that it was Robinson's last picture only adds to the poignancy.