Science fiction is, by definition, a genre about technology and its impact on society. But in many sci-fi movies, the genre is equally about exotic weapons and their impact on people’s bodies.
From Victorian tripods from Mars to unfeasibly powerful guns wreaking havoc in a Johannesburg slum, this article is dedicated to the ten coolest, most memorable weapons in science fiction cinema.
Bear in mind, though, that this is a very personal selection, so don’t come after me with a phased plasma rifle if you don’t agree with all the entries on this list…
The AT-AT – Star Wars
There’s no shortage of cool weapons in the Star Wars franchise, from the lightsaber to the Empire’s planet-nobbling Death Star. Undoubtedly the coolest weapon anywhere in the series, for my money, is definitely the AT-AT.
Before I saw The Empire Strikes Back, I spent much of my spare time as a youngster waving a plastic tube around and pretending I was Luke Skywalker. But when, at the age of about five or six, I first saw the Empire’s four-legged attack vehicles trudging across the icy wastes of Hoth, it was love at first sight.
From that moment on, I no longer wanted to be a stick-waving Jedi, but a tin hat-wearing cog in the Empire’s machine. I immediately wanted to take the helm of one of these gigantic monsters myself, and clank around in the snow blowing stuff up.
Okay, so legs on a military vehicle probably aren’t very practical (how the huge beasts can walk in ice and snow without slipping about like a puppy on a polished floor isn’t explained), but they’re still beautifully designed pieces of fantastical machinery.
Even with all the digital power at their fingertips, George Lucas and his creative team failed to come up with a mechanical design anywhere near as recognisable as the AT-AT.
Phased plasma rifle (in the 40 watt range) – The Terminator
Thanks to some superb camera work, editing and sound effects, the weapons seen in The Terminator‘s future sequences packed a gut-wrenching punch that was light years away from the pew-pew lasers of yesteryear. As he demonstrated in Aliens, James Cameron had a particular way of giving his fanciful ordnance real substance and weight, and the future he depicts in 1984‘s The Terminator is genuinely the stuff of nightmares.
If only McG had looked to these sequences for inspiration when making Terminator Salvation, maybe he could have recaptured some of the oppressive sense of foreboding and hopelessness that James Cameron brought to his classic original.
Just look at the sequence where a Terminator blasts its way into a human compound near the end of the film. The intruder’s every move has a menacing sense of purpose, while the destructive power of the Plasma Rifle it carries is perfectly depicted.
The bone gun – eXistenZ
Only a mind as playfully warped could come up with a weapon as surreal and psychologically button-pushing as this piece of osseous ordnance from 1997‘s eXistenZ.
The fact that the film’s set in a virtual videogame world almost indistinguishable from the real thing gives Cronenberg’s imagination free reign, but where on Earth did he get the idea for a gun made of bone that fires teeth as bullets? The mind boggles.
The bone gun is unforgettable, its unexpected power hideous.
The Sol – Akira
The killer satellite to end all killer satellites, the awe-inspiring, widescreen destruction seen near the conclusion of Katsuhiro Otomo’s classic 1988 animated feature, Akira, is punctuated by a blast from the Sol.
Displaying a bout of teenage angst on an epic scale, antagonist Tetsuo goes on a skyscraper-levelling rampage through Tokyo. His destructive exploits are briefly upstaged, however, by the unfeasibly broad shouldered Colonel Shikishima, who, with the jab of a single button, unleashes the laser-powered fury of the orbiting satellite, turning huge bits of Tokyo debris into smaller bits of debris, and making a proper mess of Tetsuo’s left arm.
The Sol’s victory is short-lived, however. An enraged Tetsuo blasts off, Superman-like, into the upper atmosphere, and using his god-like powers, smashes the satellite to scrap.
A Hollywood remake of Akira has been in the offing for several years now. Even with the power of modern computers at 21st century filmmakers’ fingertips, I fail to see how they’ll be able to replicate an explosive sequence as remarkable as this one, or portray the overwhelming power of the Sol as masterfully as Otomo managed it.
M41-A pulse rifle – Aliens
After the largely weapon-free Alien, James Cameron packed his film with a gigantic arsenal of military hardware in the 1986 sequel, Aliens, switching genres from predatory horror to gung-ho war film.
Cameron, therefore, builds tension, not via a haunted house atmosphere, as director Ridley Scott had done in its predecessor, but by demonstrating just how hopeless the humans’ weapons are in the face of an enemy that is fearless and seemingly infinite in number.
Nevertheless, there’s something effortlessly cool about the weaponry on display in Aliens, and Cameron displays the same affinity and adoration for military hardware that he displayed in The Terminator, and even Avatar, with its flying ironclads and knife-wielding mecha.
The best weapon of the lot is surely the M41-A pulse rifle, an instantly recognisable piece of weaponry with a built-in grenade launcher that was created by combining parts from a Thompson M1A1 machine gun, a SPAS 12 shotgun, and a Remington 870 shotgun.
The enduring popularity of the weapon (replicas are readily available from online shops even twenty-five years later) is further proof that the pulse rifle remains one of the greatest weapons in sci-fi movie history.
Tesla rifle – District 9
Critics seem divided over whether the second half of Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is a disappointing descent into mindless violence after such an intelligent build-up, or whether it’s a natural release of narrative energy following the climbing tension of the first half. Personally, I loved the film’s unapologetically messy climax, which saw anti-hero Wikus go on a rampage in an armoured battle suit, and best of all, the startling Tesla rifle.
This ridiculously powerful piece of ordnance may look as though it’s been cobbled together from leftover motorcycle parts, but it’s capable of blowing people to smithereens with a chuckle-inducing effect.
Was Blomkamp’s inclusion of this weapon due to his frustration at not being able to make a Halo feature, which would have been less bloody, but undoubtedly as full of similarly exotic guns? It’s possible. At any rate, the devastating Tesla rifle, and the insane effects it has on the things that get in its way, ranks among the most memorable sci-fi weapons of the last decade.
XZ-35 rocket pistol – Buck Rogers
The sci-fi gun that became the template for all the directed energy handguns that followed, Buck Rogers’ XZ-35 rocket pistol launched a thousand different iterations and spin-off toys. For several generations of children, the ray-gun replaced the traditional cowboy six-shooter as the playground weapon of choice.
Based on the German Mauser C96 pistol (thanks to reader Kail, who pointed this out in our sci-fi ray gun celebration a few weeks ago), the XZ-35 later influenced the design of Han Solo’s DL-44 Blaster in Star Wars.
It was the XZ-35, and the toys that came after it (see also the XZ-38 Disintegrator, and the XZ-44 Liquid Helium water pistol), that remain the iconic designs, however, and the next time you fire a zappy laser gun in a videogame, you have the creators of Buck Rogers to thank.
Phaser – Star Trek
The standard-issue firearm of the Star Trek franchise, the phaser is surely the Swiss army knife of sci-fi. It can be used to stun or kill things, or as a blowtorch to cut through walls or rocks.
“Set phasers to stun” became one of the Original Series’ most familiar catchphrases, and while the phaser passed through numerous subtle iterations over the numerous series and movies, its distinctive silhouette remains the same.
The Auto-9 – RoboCop
I was only 12 years old when I first saw RoboCop – far too young to be watching such a horrendously violent movie. Even now, I can remember the hackle-raising thrill I experienced when I first saw the titular law enforcer deploy his gun from his right leg and open fire at a moving paper target.
Capable of firing what appears to be several dozen rounds per second, the Auto-9, as it was called in the film’s script, made a horrendous mess of paper targets and bad guys alike.
Apparently based on the real-world Beretta M93R, the gun was modified to look bulkier and more substantial in RoboCop’s metallic hands.
Like all the great cinematic cowboys, RoboCop seldom misses and never reloads, and his Auto-9, thanks to its distinctive shape and unforgettable sound, is among the most memorable weapons in sci-fi.
Tripods – The War Of The Worlds
The Martian tripods of HG Wells’ 1898 novel, The War Of The Worlds, are undoubtedly the first example of alien war machines in sci-fi. Their devastating heat-rays, which could boil rivers and melt iron and glass, were also the precursors of the genre’s lasers, and the influence of Wells’ exotic mecha can be seen in such films as Independence Day and Star Wars. (Like the Martians, the Empire stick legs on their military hardware, too.)
Artists including Warwick Groble and Henrique Alvim Corréa came up with remarkable visual designs based on Wells’ descriptions, which continued to influence filmmakers years later, when they adapted War Of The Worlds into movies.
The 1953 iteration, directed by Byron Haskin, saw the Tripods take on a manta ray-like appearance in the hands of designer Albert Nozaki, lacking the tentacles or visible legs of the Victorian novel’s invaders, but wielding instead a scorpion-like energy ray that was equally distinctive.
Steven Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation cleaved far closer to Wells’ description, retaining both the tentacles, spindly legs and terrifying aura of the originals.
A Martian tripod sculpture now stands in Woking in the UK, the setting for the first stage of the alien invasion at the start of the book. Designed by Michael Condron, the sculpture is a testament to the lasting influence the novel and its Martian war machines have on our culture.