On the face of it, compiling a list of truly great sci-fi protagonists should be easy. Pick a load of familiar names from a hat, write some breathlessly adoring drivel beneath them, and head off to the pub to reward a job well done.
Except it was never going to be as simple as that – and compiling lists seldom is. For every character making an appearance in the list below, there were at least two other possible candidates who didn’t quite make the cut. Some sci-fi heroes were removed, then quickly reinstated. The order was jiggled around, then reordered again.
At one point, your humble writer realised there were more than 50 entries, and then had the unenviable task of hunting back through to decide which poor soul to eliminate. There are some names I’ll probably wish I’d included when I look back over it tomorrow, or in a year’s time, and there’ll be several more, no doubt, listed in the comments which I’ll also wish I’d included.
What follows, then, is a nervous attempt at compiling the 50 greatest sci-fi heroes and heroines in the movies, rather than an absolute, definitive, word-of-God list. There are characters in here which hail from the earliest years of the genre in cinema, and one or two who’ve arrived on the big screen only a week or two ago. There are heroes from hurriedly-made B-movies, and heroines from multi-million dollar franchises. Some have been on epic adventures that span a galaxy, while others have fought more personal battles in a single location.
Whatever they get up to, they’re the glue that hold some classic genre movies together…
50. Jack DethThe Trancers series
Less charitable readers might consider Jack Deth to be a poor cousin to Blade Runner’s Rick Deckard, but what Charles Band’s Trancers movies lacked in budget and artistry, the early ones more than made up for charm, novel ideas and humour.
Deth, played by Tim Thomerson, is a 23rd century cop whose job is to track down psychic criminals called Trancers. In a plot device straight out of a Philip K Dick novel, it’s a drug rather than a machine that propels characters through time, and in the first film, Deth travels back to 1985 Los Angeles to catch a criminal by the name of Martin Whistler.
Deth was the proud owner of a particularly cool sci-fi gadget – something called a ‘long second’ watch, which he could use to slow down time, thus allowing him to avoid bullets as they flew through the air. With his big shoulder pads, slicked back hair (“Dry hair’s for squids”) and his wonderfully terse way with words (“I’m from another time, another world. I don’t even know what you people eat for lunch”) he’s a true B-movie hero.
The Trancers sequels didn’t exactly improve as they were rolled out – 2002’s Trancers 6 used stock footage of Thomerson from earlier films – but Deth was a great character, a hard-boiled detective with a delectable range of high-tech gizmos. He’s also one of the few sci-fi heroes to narrate his own trailers. “Jack Deth’s back… and he’s never even been here before!”
49. RiddickPitch Black, The Chronicles Of Riddick
More than any other genre, we’d argue, the protagonists in science fiction cinema are divided along two lines: those of intellect and those of action. Riddick, first introduced in 2000’s Pitch Black, is firmly in the second camp, but there’s something about Vin Diesel’s almost wordless charisma that makes him far more interesting than he could have been.
A convict from an early age, an encounter with an eye surgeon left Riddick with an acute sensitivity to light – an affliction that isn’t without its upside, since he gets to wear a cool pair of goggles all day, and can see quite clearly at night. This stands Riddick in good stead when he crashes, along with an entire ship full of passengers and criminals, on a planet populated by giant killer bats in Pitch Black.
If 2004’s The Chronicles Of Riddick was a less than brilliant follow-up to the breezy B-picture fun ofthe film mentioned above, the anti-hero’s found refuge in some thoroughly decent videogames, and a not-bad-at-all animated short (Dark Fury). Here’s hoping next year’s Riddick, which sees Vin Diesel again teamed with David Twohy, will prove to be a return to big-screen form.
48. Robert NevilleI Am Legend
Francis Lawrence’s 2007 adaptation can’t hope to retain the remarkable depth or atmosphere of the classic Richard Matheson novel which inspired it, but for the first half, I Am Legend almost comes close. In a future Manhattan left almost deserted following a viral outbreak, military scientist Robert Neville (Will Smith) trudges the streets alone with his dog, and locks himself away in his fortress-like apartment by night.
Will Smith’s performance – lonely, wracked with guilt – is among his best, and I Am Legend is a world away from the largely interchangeable heroes he played in sci-fi fare such as Independence Day and I, Robot. The incursion of some unconvincing CGI monsters in the film’s second half derail much of what was good about I Am Legend’s opening, but while the atmosphere lingers, there’s always Smith’s superb portrayal to enjoy.
47. James ColeTwelve Monkeys
Quite possibly the toughest hero to travel through time (except for maybe Jean Claude Van Damme’s character in Timecop), James Cole was brought brilliantly to life by Bruce Willis. Terry Gilliam trained all his demented creativity on this apocalyptic sci-fi film, but all the visuals and batty performances (not least Brad Pitt’s) would have been for nothing without a great leading turn to tie it all together, and this film counts among Willis’ finest yet, and it’s certainly the best in his genre canon.
Like all the best sci-fi protagonists, Cole’s journey through the film is intellectual as well as physical, and in the final scene, he makes an astonishing, quite moving discovery which brings the apparently non-linear story full circle. A truly great film, and an equally great performance.
46. Donnie DarkoDonnie Darko
A deceptively complex character, Donnie Darko was played by a young Jake Gyllenhaal in a sublime early performance. Although he’s ostensibly just another troubled, middle-class teenager growing up in 80s America, Donnie is also a time traveller, capable of superhuman feats of strength (which includes leaving an axe buried in the hideous bulldog statue squatting outside his school), and has a supernatural best friend – a six-foot-tall rabbit with a dire warnings of a coming apocalypse.
Richard Kelly’s debut is a stormy, murky stew of music, incongruous images and sometimes impenetrable pseudo science – but like a teen-centric David Lynch movie, Donnie Darko’s weirdness actually counts in its favour. The key to the film’s success, though, is Donnie himself – a neurotic hero who retains his humour, creativity and puckish sense of mischief in the face of impending oblivion.45. John CarterJohn Carter
It’s remarkable to think that a hero as influential as Carter has taken so long to make it to the big screen – although there was the straight-to-DVD Princess Of Mars (2009), which was terrible.
John Carter is a veteran of the American Civil War who finds himself transported to Mars, where he discovers that the planet’s lesser gravity has given him enormous strength and the ability to leap huge distances. Reluctantly drawn into another civil war, this time between rival Martian tribes, Carter eventually becomes the protector of princess Dejah Thoris.
An (almost) unwavering force for good, Carter may seem rather one-dimensionally heroic by modern standards, but his influence on other writers and filmmakers can’t be underestimated – Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Superman, and Avatar’s Sully all owe a debt to the brawny hero, and it’s good to see him finally take centre stage in his own movie. What a pity, then, that his big-screen debut wasn’t more readily embraced by critics and some moviegoers.
44-43. Fox Mulder and Dana ScullyThe X-Files
Although either character could have easily been given their own entry on this list, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully are so memorable as a sci-fi double act that it made sense to keep them together – still bickering and flirting, no doubt, even after all these years.
The simple conceit of a sceptical FBI agent (that’s Gillian Anderson’s Dana Scully) teamed with a paranormal investigator agent (David Duchovny’s Fox Mulder) provided the jumping-off point for almost a decade’s worth of TV, as well as two spin-off movies.
Whether the episodes or movies involved investigating strange monsters in sewers or alien conspiracies, Mulder and Scully’s smouldering, sometimes uneasy friendship provided the lynchpin. It’s unfortunate, then, that The X-Files: I Want To Believe ended their onscreen partnership on such an odd note in 2008 – let’s hope the rumours are true, and that a third X-Files movie will give the pair a fitting final mystery to solve.
42. Tony StarkIron Man
He’s rich, intelligent, he has an entire garage full of cool cars, and he gets to fly around in an armoured suit which turns him into a humanoid fighter jet. These are all perfectly good reasons to hate the arrogant Tony Stark, but the little glint in Robert Downey Jr’s eye, as he plays one of the most spoiled of cinema’s spoiled rich kids, makes us side with him almost immediately.
Although other Marvel movies flirt with magic, Stark is perhaps the more scientifically grounded of its heroes, which is why, after much agonising, we awarded Stark a place on this list in place of the Hulk or Captain America. He is, after all, just an ordinary man under all that hi-tech armour, and he only avoids the chill hand of death with his sharp reflexes and equally keen wit.
41. Jean-Luc PicardStar Trek
The second famous commander of the USS Enterprise, Jean-Luc Picard possessed all of the cunning and leadership qualities of Captain Kirk, but rather less of the preening self-absorption. Patrick Stewart first brought his thespian gravitas to the role in 1987, and continued to bring much of his own personality to Picard in the TV series and movies until 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis.
Although Kirk remains the most frequently lampooned ship’s captain in pop culture, Picard has himself become an icon, with his brooding aura and oft-quoted catchphrase, “Make it so” still resonating in the minds of Star Trek fans everywhere, even a decade after his final screen appearance.40. The DoctorDr Who And The Daleks/Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 AD
Although primarily based in the alternate universe of television, we just had to give the Doctor a place on the list for his two cheerfully 60s big-screen outings, Dr Who And The Daleks and Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 AD. Here, Peter Cushing played a rather dapper incarnation of the Doctor, and his struggles against the Daleks were depicted in full colour for the first time.
Notices for both films were mixed from critics and fans alike, but for us, they remain a pair of fascinating curios in the Doctor’s expansive cabinet of adventures. And although he’s been eclipsed somewhat by his small-screen counterparts, Peter Cushing’s gentle, affable take on the Time Lord is an engaging one, even if the movies recast the Doctor as a human inventor (with a pair of grandchildren, no less) rather than a traveller from Gallifrey – though to be fair, much of the now adored Who lore would only be established later, in the post-William Hartnell shows.
Viewed as a stand-alone, alternate-timeline story in the Who canon, there’s much to love about these two movies, as well as Cushing’s distinctive take on one of the UK’s most famous science fiction characters.
39. MacReady The Thing
The only warm and fuzzy aspect of the sci-fi horror classic The Thing is protagonist MacReady’s beard. A helicopter pilot working at a remote facility in Antarctica, he becomes the reluctant hero when a horrific, shape-shifting alien thaws out of the ice.
Grumpy, distant and more interested in drinking and playing computer chess than socialising, Kurt Russell’s character isn’t your typical square-jawed, virtuous movie hero. But then again, MacReady’s the perfect fit for the frosty atmosphere present in every frame of John Carpenter’s masterwork. And while MacReady isn’t given to making inspiring speeches or pithy quips, he’s good in a crisis, and above all, cunning – after all, with little more than a hot wire and a few Petri dishes of blood, he manages to flush the Thing out of its hiding place – with spectacularly messy results…
38. Flash GordonFlash Gordon
Originally an Alex Raymond comic strip, Flash Gordon was, like Buck Rogers, a sci-fi hero firmly in the John Carter mould. An expert polo player and Yale alumni, Flash’s adventures began when he and love interest Dale Arden were kidnapped by the mad Doctor Zarkov, who took them to the planet Mongo in his rocket ship.
The strip spawned three hugely popular matinee serials, later condensed into full-length features, and an enduring sci-fi legend was born. The wilfully camp 1980 movie may have failed to make much of a dent at the box office, but it has long since grown into a cult favourite.
Flash himself has rarely been off the air, having appeared in several television series since the 30s, while various comic books have related his adventures in printed form.
37. Malcolm ‘Mal’ ReynoldsSerenity/Firefly
With his Civil War-era inspired clothing and revolver, plus his arrogant, somewhat cynical demeanour, Mal Reynolds ranks alongside Han Solo as one of sci-fi’s most loveable rogues.
Fox’s unsympathetic handling of Firefly meant that the fledgling TV series never got the mass following it deserved, but Whedon’s deft creation of Reynolds, the leader of a group of interstellar smugglers and cargo runners, quickly inspired cult devotion.
After Firefly was cancelled in 2002, Reynolds and his crew migrated to the big screen in Serenity, a cracking film that immediately earned Mal a place on this list.36. Alex Murphy/RoboCopRoboCop
A lesser group of filmmakers could have made RoboCop’s half man, half machine protagonist look absolutely ridiculous, so it’s a testament to suit designer Rob Bottin, director Paul Verhoeven and, most of all, actor Peter Weller for creating one of the most memorable sci-fi heroes in movie history.
Brutally shot to death by a gang of criminals, Detroit cop Alex Murphy is resurrected by science as RoboCop, the first in a planned series of mindlessly obedient law enforcers designed by Omni Consumer Products. Soon, however, Murphy begins to experience flashbacks of his brutal murder, and sets off to exact revenge on the villains who killed him.
Weller plays Murphy with pathos and tenderness – remarkable, really, given that he spends a large portion of the film with his face obscured – and he commits himself to a role that many actors would have coasted through.
35. Major Alan ‘Dutch’ SchaeferPredator
Few of us would have the nerve to punch a ten-foot-tall alien in the face, and it’s a mark of Major Alan Schaefer’s bravery that, even after the monster’s killed all his fellow mercenaries with a series of high-tech weapons, he remains determined to even the score.
Known as Dutch to his friends, and Arnold Schwarzenegger to a legion cinema-goers in the 80s, Schaefer’s hardly the most three-dimensional character on this list (he’s muscular and stoic, and that’s about it), but he deserves a place for being just about the only actor on Earth who you could imagine surviving a one-on-one brawl with Stan Winston’s Predator.
In fact, by the time Dutch has stripped down, covered himself in mud and then crippled the alien with a huge log, you’d forgive the creature for wishing it’d never set foot on our fair planet in the first place.
34. Roy BattyBlade Runner
Some would argue, I suspect, that Harrison Ford’s laconic protagonist Rick Deckard should be on this list. But for me, Rutger Hauer’s character Roy Batty is Blade Runner’s true hero. A replicant illegally running around the streets of 2019 Los Angeles, Batty’s character is invested with far more depth – and given more to do, dramatically speaking – than the nominal hero Deckard.
That Ridley Scott got on better with Hauer than Ford would partially explain why Batty sparkles while Deckard sulks in the finished film; Hauer’s warmer working relationship with the director led to the former suggesting the now famous “tears in rain” line for the film’s conclusion – a moving final soliloquy for cinema’s ultimate prodigal son.
33. KlaatuThe Day The Earth Stood Still
In most sci-fi films of the 50s, aliens were frequently an invading nuisance, buzzing around US monuments like shiny metal flies. Robert Wise’s The Day The Earth Stood Still was one of the few movies that tried something different, and the result is a classic.
In it, Michael Rennie play Klaatu, a saucer-riding extraterrestrial who comes to Earth with a dire warning about its continued fraternisation with nuclear missiles. Unlike many sci-fi protagonists, Klaatu isn’t a man of action, but a messiah-like pacifist. It’s only when the army foolishly opens fire that Gort, Klaatu’s eerily silent robot, unleashes his tank-dissolving death ray.
Rennie puts in a memorably tender, quiet performance as Klaatu, and it ranks, along with Kevin McCarthy’s turn in Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, as one of the finest in 50s sci-fi cinema.
32. Seth BrundleThe Fly
Jeff Goldblum put in the performance of a lifetime in David Cronenberg’s 1986 version of The Fly. In their hands, this potentially schlocky story, about a scientist whose DNA is fused with that of a housefly, is elevated to an operatic, gory tragedy. Far from messing with natural laws that should never be broken, Goldlum’s Seth Brundle is simply the victim of a sad twist of fate.
For a little while, as the fly DNA invigorates Brundle’s own, he briefly becomes a sci-fi hero in the traditional sense – virile, witty, and immensely strong. But then his inner fly takes over, and his eventual fall from grace is hideous – and unforgettably poignant.31. Scott CareyThe Incredible Shrinking Man
Like Seth Brundle in The Fly, the protagonist of The Incredible Shrinking Man is the target of one of fortune’s shittier arrows. While out on his boat, businessman Scott Carey comes into contact with a radioactive cloud that leaves him shrinking in size by precisely one inch per day. As he slowly diminishes, Carey runs the gamut of emotions, from fear and bitterness to ultimate acceptance of his fate, and Grant Williams’ performance here is little short of perfect.
Although not the most immediately recognisable name on this list, the image of Carey fighting a gigantic spider with a sewing pin is surely among the most iconic of 50s sci-fi cinema, and The Incredible Shrinking Man is rightly regarded as a classic.
30. Doctor Chris KelvinSolaris
One of science fiction’s more cerebral protagonists, Doctor Chris Kelvin is also among the genre’s most compelling. Setting down on a research station orbiting the planet Solaris, he’s visited by his late wife, who’d committed suicide back on Earth years before – the planet, Kelvin discovers, is a vast conscious entity that is capable of physically recreating people from memories.
Polish author Stanislaw Lem’s novel was structured like a detective story, with Kelvin attempting to retain a sense of scientific objectivity in the face of a supernatural alien power. First adapted for television in the 1960s, it was Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 version of Solaris that is perhaps the most well known and highly regarded. Donatas Banionis was brilliant as an ageing Kelvin, haunted by the return of his dead love, played by Natalya Bondarchuk (who’s also brilliant).
Where the book’s tone was scientific rather than emotional, Tarkovsky concentrates on Kelvin’s grief, and the torment that his wife’s reappearance provokes. Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 adaptation focused on the same themes, but made his film shorter and rather more accessible, turning it into a kind of grand love story set in space.
While Soderbergh’s Solaris wasn’t without its critics – among them Lem himself, who bemoaned the film’s departure from his novel – George Clooney was excellent as Kelvin, whose grief is like a whirlpool from which he can’t escape. An inspiration, perhaps, for the character of Dom Cobb in Chris Nolan’s Inception…
29. Thomas Anderson/NeoThe Matrix
In a reversal of 1982’s Tron, The Matrix saw Keanu Reeves play Anderson, a computer hacker sucked out of a simulated world and into horrifying reality. Reeves may not be famed for his dramatic range, but he’s well cast as the audience’s guide through the Wachowskis’ unfamiliar sci-fi world. Undergoing the archetypal Hero’s Journey, Anderson (or Neo, as he’s otherwise known) is led by the all-knowing Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) along the path to becoming the One – a legendary super being who will end the war between humans and machines.
The second and third Matrix movies weren’t a patch on the first, largely because they couldn’t match the first’s visual impact or direct storytelling. But Neo, with his shades and penchant for long black coats, remains one of the distinctive-looking sci-fi heroes of all time, and the original Matrix, which follows his transformation from clueless hacker to flying superhero, was undoubtedly a fine one.
28. Max RockatanskyMad Max series
Mad Max was the film that made a star of Mel Gibson, and spawned an entire wave of low-budget, shot-in-the-desert post-apocalyptic action movies. It’s also the film that introduced the brilliantly named Max Rockatansky to the world, an expert driver for future Australia’s Main Force Patrol. A character with an ice-cold demeanour and huge capacity for violence, Max took revenge on the gang who killed his wife and son in the first film’s final act.
By the second, The Road Warrior, Max had established himself as a kind of futuristic cowboy who favours V8 muscle cars over horses. Gibson was perfect in the role, bringing the right amount of burnt-out weariness and repressed rage to the leather-clad hero. It’ll be interesting to see how the great Tom Hardy will play Max in the forthcoming Fury Road.
27. ElliottE.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
If our calculations are correct, Elliott is the youngest protagonist on this list by some margin. And yet, in spite of his wide-eyed innocence, the 10-year-old Elliott (played by Henry Thomas) forges a telepathic bond with an alien, narrowly avoids the icy fingers of death, and escapes government agents by flying off on a bike.
For a generation of kids growing up in the 80s, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was the ultimate wish fulfilment story – and Henry Thomas plays Elliott with an unstudied, disarming lack of precociousness. Sentimental and manipulative though Spielberg’s film is, the concluding scene, where Elliott says a sad farewell to his alien friend, will surely give even the coldest audience member a lump in the throat.
26. Kevin FlynnTron
A sci-fi hero for the home computer age, Kevin Flynn was an 80s Alice who found himself zapped into a digital wonderland. Jeff Bridges brought all his charisma and likeability to ace programmer Kevin (not to mention a downright odd performance as the character’s digital alter-ego, Clu), and leads the viewer through the film’s once groundbreaking realm of glowing suits and computer effects.
Bruce Boxleitner’s Tron may be an important enough character to appear in the title, but it’s Kevin Flynn who gives the film its human edge, and Bridges seems to enjoy his performance here, uttering such lines as, “I shouldn’t have written all of those tank programs” with winning enthusiasm.
25. Commander John J AdamsForbidden Planet
Gene Roddenberry has openly admitted that this 50s classic was one of his prime inspirations for Star Trek, and Commander John J Adams, memorably played by Leslie Nielsen, bears many similarities to William Shatner’s James T Kirk – the gelled hair, the clipped syntax, macho demeanour, and unwavering eye for the ladies.
Upstaged in popular consciousness by Robby The Robot (who dominated Forbidden Planet’s poster and has remained a sci-fi icon ever since), Adams is worth a place on this list for being the archetypal space ship commander – a trapping mercilessly lampooned by Futurama’s Zapp Brannigan, who looks and acts uncannily like both Adams and Kirk.
And while Leslie Nielsen’s firmly in the serious period of his acting career in this film, note the little twinkle in his eye when he utters lines like, “Nice climate you have here. High oxygen content.”
24. Kyle ReeseThe Terminator
“Come with me if you want to live!” Michael Biehn was inspired casting as future resistance fighter Kyle Reese, and his sympathetic, human performance is the appropriate counterweight Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mountainous cyborg assassin.
Reese’s everyman persona makes him easy to root for, and his relative frailty, compared to the seemingly unstoppable Terminator, adds to the tension in James Cameron’s express train of a film. That Reese continues to valiantly protect Sarah Connor right up to the bitter end merely makes his demise all the more heartrending. It’s a shame, too, that Cameron snipped out the tiny scene written for Reese in the theatrical version of Terminator 2 – Reese was one of the great underdog heroes of 80s sci-fi cinema.
23. Tuck PendletonInnerspace
Although it wasn’t the biggest-grossing family sci-fi of the 80s, it was, at least for this writer, among the very best, and certainly among the finest of Joe Dante’s movies. Essentially a blackly comic reworking of Fantastic Voyage, Innerspace stars Dennis Quaid as Tuck Pendleton, an alcoholic aviator who signs up for a potentially groundbreaking experiment: at the helm of a submersible pod, he’ll be shrunk to microscopic proportions and injected into a laboratory rabbit. Unfortunately for Tuck, the incursion of a group of criminals leads to his pod being injected into the body of bumbling supermarket clerk, Jack Putter (Martin Short).
Although Quaid essentially plays the straight man here, he brings real old-Hollywood, square-jawed charisma to his role, and it’s hard to imagine the film working without his rock-solid performance acting as a balance for Short’s typically hyperactive antics.
22. NadaThey Live
Inarguably John Carpenter’s most underrated film of the 80s, They Live functioned as both a fun, outlandish B-movie and an incisive dig at the era’s rampant greed and excess.
Professional wrestler ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper made his acting debut as Nada, a drifter who discovers, thanks to a pair of special glasses, that society’s elite are aliens who control the populace through subliminal messages in advertising. Piper may seem like an odd choice of leading actor, but it all makes sense when seen in the context of the film – They Live is shot through with a streak of black humour and a distinctly 50s B picture atmosphere, and somehow, Piper’s robust presence fits right in there.
Nada sits alongside Snake Plissken and The Thing’s MacReady as the kind of blue-collar hero that Carpenter often brought to his films of the period – They Live is like a variation on Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, except viewed from the perspective of a working class vagabond rather than a middle-class doctor. This shift of view means our hero gets to utter such classic lines as “I’ve come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass – and I’m all out of bubble gum” (a line which, legend has it, Piper ad-libbed), and engage in an extraordinarily protracted fistfight with actor Keith David – something you definitely wouldn’t see or hear in a Body Snatchers movie.
If nothing else, Zed, as played by Sean Connery, is among the most distinctive-looking sci-fi protagonists on this list, and John Boorman’s 70s oddity is undoubtedly one of the strangest genre movies ever made. Quite how Boorman convinced Connery to run around Ireland in a little pair of red pants while holding a pistol – and at one point, don a white wedding dress – has been lost to history, but the film remains a riveting watch.
Zed is an Exterminator, a gun-toting assassin who keeps the bestial masses of humanity at bay while the Eternals live a life of decadence miles away in their remote village. One day, Zed hides inside a giant, floating stone head, and seeks to find out the truth about Zardoz – the apparently godlike being of the title.
Beneath its weird exterior and minimal costume designs, Zardoz is a far more conventional story than it first appears, and Zed’s a hero very much in the mould of John Carter – a man who bravely journeys into an unfamiliar land and wins the hand of a princess. But neither John Carter nor the heroes who followed in his wake – from Buck Rogers to Luke Skywalker – were the owners of a moustache as awe-inspiring as Sean Connery’s Zed, nor a mankini so rouge, and that alone is reason enough for his inclusion here.20. Jonathan ERollerball
James Caan has put in plenty of great performances in his long career, but his appearance as future sports star Jonathan E in Rollerball is among the best. In a future dominated by corporations, a violent sport called Rollerball is used to amuse the masses. A kind of cross between netball and a roller derby, rival teams of heavily armoured players race around a ring and attempt to get the ball in the other side’s goal. The sport is used by the state as a kind of bludgeoning metaphor: the individual is powerless against the might of a team.
Jonathan E’s rising star status flies in the face of that notion, however, and when the state takes increasingly harsh steps to remove him from the game by changing the rules, Rollerball descends into a gladiatorial bloodbath. Caan brings a solid physical presence to the role of a futuristic athlete and warrior, gamely hurtling around in a film that many actors would have turned down after reading page one of the script.
19. Thomas Jerome NewtonThe Man Who Fell To Earth
It’s a testament to David Bowie’s unique physical attributes that he could look convincingly alien without, for the most part, the use of prosthetics. Rail-thin and unblinking, Bowie plays a lonely, initially angelic extra-terrestrial whose fall is moral as well as physical. Attempting to raise enough money to build a ship that will take him back to his home planet and his family, he becomes distracted by earthly vices, and slowly sinks into a mire of sex and gin.
Bowie may not be a classically trained actor, but he was born to play Newton – few other performers before or since could portray such detachment or bewilderment at the mundanity of life on Earth. Certainly one of the more unconventional heroes in science fiction – if one could even describe him as a hero at all – Newton’s undeniably a one-of-a-kind character, and although a product of its time, Nicolas Roeg’s movie is equally unique.18. Roy NearyClose Encounters Of The Third Kind
The only sci-fi hero on this list to carve a mountain out of mashed potato, Roy Neary is the ordinary, unassuming centre of an extraordinary conspiracy. It’s said that most of Hollywood’s 70s leading men turned down the part of Roy before Richard Dreyfuss took it on, and with hindsight, it’s hard to imagine none-more-macho actors like Gene Hackman, Steve McQueen or Jack Nicholson working nearly as well in the role as Dreyfuss does.
Roy plays an Indiana blue-collar lineman who sees a UFO while working late one night, and whose subsequent interest in all things flying saucer-related gradually tips over into relationship-wrecking obsession.
Unlike Star Wars, released the same year, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind is a slow-paced film – Spielberg’s story is equal parts saucer-age fairytale and character study, viewing a first contact with alien life from the perspective of ordinary people as opposed to scientists or the military.
And beneath Spielberg’s confident direction, Douglas Trumbull’s then cutting-edge special effects, and John Williams’ immediately recognisable theme, there’s Roy Neary, a richly wrought character who runs the gamut from ordinary guy, to a pilgrim tormented by his search for truth, to eventual enlightenment.17. Bernard QuatermassThe Quatermass series
Once a widely recognised character in science fiction, Bernard Quatermass was the creation of legendary writer Nigel Kneale. On both British TV and in the movies, Quatermass was a rocket scientist who encountered all kinds of strange menaces, including a plant-like alien intelligence capable of absorbing humans (The Quatermass Experiment), and an ancient alien craft entombed in the London Underground (Quatermass And The Pit).
Various actors have filled the role, with varying success – Reginald Tate was the first, Andre Morell’s performance in the TV version of Quatermass And The Pit is widely regarded as the best, while US actor Brian Donlevy’s turn in The Quatermass Xperiment movie is often criticised.
Andrew Keir played the title role in Hammer’s cinematic version of Quatermass And The Pit, which may be the high point of the entire series – and most certainly among the best British science fiction films ever made.
Bernard Quatermass is the kind of sci-fi hero rarely seen these days. Cerebral, smartly dressed, hat-clad and a bit grumpy, he’s a very British, poised sort of protagonist. A 2005 BBC TV remake of The Quatermass Experiment – broadcast live, just like the 50s original – cast a young, spiky-haired and somewhat chipper Jason Flemyng as Quatermass, which sort of missed the point of the character.
Quatermass needs that tweed-and-leather-elbow-patches air of donnish authority that the better actors of the 50s and 60s bought to the role. Lets hope that, if and when Hammer revives Bernard in the future, it doesn’t lose this unique aspect of his character.
16. George TaylorPlanet Of The Apes
“Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape” has since passed into legend as one of the most quotable lines in movie history, and Planet Of The Apes is still referenced and parodied in a legion films and comedy shows. And in among the legend, there’s Charlton Heston as sturdy astronaut George Taylor, a deep space explorer who undergoes the ultimate culture shock: crash-landing on a planet ruled by simians, he’s treated as an oddity, then a menace.
Heston lends his beleaguered character angry, proud-chested dignity, as he and his comrades are cruelly treated by the planet’s society of apes. The movie’s concluding scene, torn straight from the covers of a pulp sci-fi magazine, is a classic one: Taylor knelt on a beach, ranting at the foot of a broken Statue of Liberty. “You maniacs! You blew it up! God damn you! God damn you all to hell…!”
15. Buck RogersBuck Rogers
First appearing in a story called Armageddon 2419 AD in 1928, Buck Rogers quickly became one of the most popular heroes of the 20th century. Universal first brought Buck to the screen in 1939, in a 12-part series of adventures starring Buster Crabbe as the eponymous hero.
Like John Carter, Buck Rogers is a war veteran (in this instance, WWI), who falls into a coma-like state and wakes up in an unfamiliar place – Carter woke up on a mythical Mars, while Rogers awakes in the year 2149, by which time the planet has been overrun by a ruthless dictator.
Buck’s first screen outing was a low-budget affair, cobbled together in the wake of the successful Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars (which Crabbe also starred in), but the character’s popularity endured – which was probably thanks, in part, to the success of Buck’s Atomic Disintegrator raygun, which became a must-have children’s toy for years afterwards.
Like Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers’ fame appears to have dimmed in recent years, perhaps because audiences like their heroes to be less pure and courageous and more dark and conflicted. There have been rumblings of a new Buck Rogers movie for some time, though (with Frank Miller once attached), so maybe we’ll yet see the hero brought into the 21st century – or maybe not, if John Carter’s till receipts are anything to go by.
14. Dominic CobbInception
The antithesis of Buck Rogers, here’s a sci-fi hero from a filmmaker who specialises in protagonists with a murky past. Dream thief Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) may be the master of pilfering ideas from the minds of his slumbering victims, but he’s tormented by the memory of his late wife, who lingers in his subconscious like a ghost. There’s a chance, though, that by pulling off one last job, he can earn a chance to redeem himself.
Along with an exceptional supporting cast, including Marion Cotillard as Cobb’s wife, DiCaprio puts in a sterling performance as a trickster whose life is blighted by tragedy. Inception rightly gained attention for its visual effects and relatively complex plot – something not often seen in a summer blockbuster – but it’s Cobb and his unhappy backstory, I’d argue, that really holds the screen.
13. Snake PlisskenEscape From New York, Escape From LA
With his eye patch and glowering visage, Snake Plissken is one of the most recognisable main characters in sci-fi cinema, and perhaps the best creation to emerge from John Carpenter and Kurt Russell’s partnership, even if Escape From New York itself isn’t (whisper it) quite as good as the out-and-out classic, The Thing.
Written during the cynical atmosphere of the post-Watergate era, Escape From New York required a world-weary, hard-edged and, yes, cynical hero to match its plot. Although the studio wanted a more bankable star like Charles Bronson or Tommy Lee Jones to play Snake, Carpenter took a risk on Russell – it’s easy to forget that, at the time, he was better known as a young actor in Disney movies like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.
Snake Plissken thoroughly washed away the vestiges of that family-friendly image, and he became the archetypal snarling sci-fi bad ass.
12. Wikus van de MerweDistrict 9
Being a protagonist doesn’t mean you have to be likeable. Which is just as well, because for much of Neill Blomkamp’s acclaimed debut, Wikus van de Merwe is thoroughly reprehensible – an unseemly bureaucrat who thinks nothing of horribly mistreating the alien refugees holed up in a future Johannesburg slum.
Even when he comes into contact with a strange alien fluid, which quickly makes him as pariah-like and loathed as the ‘Prawns’ he oppresses, Wikus steadfastly refuses to head down the redemptive path that most protagonists tread. Only in the film’s final act, where he’s almost entirely consumed by alien DNA, does Wikus finally do the right thing, and help alien Christopher and his young son to escape Earth in a repaired mothership.
District 9 brought Sharlto Copley to the world’s attention, and it’s easy to see why – he puts in a great performance here, and creates a truly memorable, bravely horrible protagonist.11. Katniss EverdeenThe Hunger Games
We’d probably be lynched if we didn’t include the newly minted sci-fi movie heroine, Katniss Everdeen, on this list. Fortunately, The Hunger Games was so good, it would be a crime not to mention her in the same (prolonged) breath as the other characters mentioned here, and it’s a credit to Jennifer Lawrence that she took author Suzanne Collins’ character and added her own personal spin on her.
A Hollywood version of The Hunger Games could have provided a very scrubbed-up, defanged version of the murderous spectator sport in the source novel, and it’s to Lawrence’s credit that her performances is so raw and honest, even as the violence had to be tempered somewhat to gain a 12A certificate.
What’ll be most interesting to see, now that Everdeen’s brave, self-reliant heroine has been firmly established in the movie-going consciousness, is where the Lawrences (Jennifer and newly appointed director Francis) take the character next; after all, many of the characters on this list have had more than one film to develop and stretch out, and we suspect that Everdeen will, if the next two or three Hunger Games movies prove to be as good (or better) than the first, only grow in stature in years to come.
10. Dr David Bowman2001: A Space Odyssey
A more low-key, realistic hero for Stanley Kubrick’s “proverbial good science fiction movie”, Doctor Dave Bowman still gets to do many of the exciting things that sci-fi heroes take for granted: he flies off on an adventure, battles an out-of-control sentient computer, encounters aliens, and then floats back to Earth as a giant space baby. Or something.
Shot and released before humanity even ventured onto the Moon, it’s quite impressive just how much actor Keir Dullea looks and acts like a real astronaut – a result, perhaps, of Kubrick’s extensive research during pre-production. As a result, Bowman isn’t the most charismatic protagonist in sci-fi cinema, but his extraordinary battle of wits with the malfunctioning HAL, and his involvement in the film’s psychedelic concluding trip through a star gate, means that his place on this list is richly deserved.
9. Sarah ConnorThe Terminator, Terminator 2
The Terminator saw a young Sarah Connor graduate from innocent, poodle-haired scooter rider to foul mouthed cyborg killer, and by Terminator 2, she’s a fully-fledged warrior mother with her own cache of heavy artillery hidden in the desert. Arnold Schwarzenegger may have had his name and face all over the poster, but Linda Hamilton’s star turn as Connor easily equals the Austrian Oak’s.
Hamilton’s is a great performance, too – her T2 character is now so haunted by her knowledge of the future, and so obsessed with protecting her son from harm, that she’s in danger of becoming as cold and inhuman as the cyborgs who’ll one day rule the planet. Dominated though this list is by male protagonists, Sarah Connor redresses the imbalance a little, because she’s without doubt one of the most memorable sci-fi heroes in movie history.
8. Sam BellMoon
The very best science fiction movie of recent years? Quite possibly. Duncan Jones’ understated debut is, at its heart, a character-driven piece about identity, individuality and isolation, and the plight of protagonist Sam Bell is perfect in its simplicity. Sam Rockwell turns in an astonishing performance as a lonely employee contracted to work on a lunar mining base who, just as he’s scheduled to go home after three years in isolation, discovers that his employers are hiding a disturbing secret.
Sam Bell is one of the most sympathetic and nuanced characters on this list, and a mixture of great writing and pitch-perfect acting mean you’ll be rooting for him throughout. How Rockwell failed to win any mainstream acting awards for his extraordinary turn will, we suspect, remain one of the enduring mysteries of modern cinema.
7. Dr Miles BennellInvasion Of The Body Snatchers
Don Siegel’s 1956 Body Snatchers is among the most low-key alien invasion movies ever made, and almost certainly the best. As sci-fi heroes go, Doctor Miles (Kevin McCarthy) has little to do here, since he inevitably fits the pieces together of his hometown’s invaders once it’s too late, but he’s the perfect vantage point for the film’s mystery and paranoia.
McCarthy’s perfectly cast as the Californian doctor whose smooth self-assurance gives way to sweaty anxiety as more and more of his patients are replaced by emotionless Pod People. His cry of “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next!” is one of the classic line of 50s sci-fi – if only Don Siegel had been allowed to conclude the film at this moment, as originally intended, and not been forced to tack on the studio-approved happy ending. It’s the one blemish on an otherwise flawless film.
Doctor Miles, meanwhile, is surely one of the most memorable protagonists in 50s genre cinema – look out for his superb cameo in Philip Kaufman’s brilliant 1978 Body Snatchers remake.
6. Lando CalrissianThe Empire Strikes Back/Return Of The Jedi
The smooth-talking administrator of Cloud City, Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian is a character even more untrustworthy and caddish than Han Solo when we first meet him in The Empire Strikes Back. It’s in the Return Of The Jedi that Lando manages to redeem himself, rescuing his old friend Han from Jabba the Hutt’s lair, and later going on to deliver the killer blow to the Death Star’s core in the final battle.
After the initial trilogy of movies ended in the 80s, Calrissian continued to appear prominently in the tie-in Star Wars books that followed – a testament to how loved the character still is by fans and writers alike.5. Marty McFlyBack To The Future
Comfortably the most famous time traveller of the 80s, and the only sci-fi hero on this list to have fended off the lusty overtures of his mother, Marty McFly needs little introduction. Fleet fingered on the guitar and nimble on a skateboard, McFly is the epitome of 80s cool, even if his choice in friends does cause him to be thrown back in time in a modified DeLorean.
In theory, a teenage boy who starts off with the skills listed above, and then ends the movie with the girl of his dreams, the perfect loving parents and his own gigantic, gas-guzzling SUV could have come across as horribly odious, but Michael J Fox’s modest charm and diminutive stature made McFly one of the most disarming protagonists of the decade. And where some of the other characters on this list had to endure some pretty tawdry sequels shortly after their introduction, Marty was lucky enough to have appeared in a trilogy of movies which were uniformly joyous.
4. Han SoloStar Wars
Han Solo remains one of cinema’s most loveable rogues, irrespective of genre, and it’s a testament to his magnetism and humour that, even 35 years later, whether he shot first or not remains a topic of heated debate. A smuggler, loner, and unremitting cynic, Solo provides the perfect counterpoint to the naïve, idealistic Luke Skywalker.
Plus, he has the coolest best friend in sci-fi (Chewbacca) and one of the best-looking space ships (the Millennium Falcon). Skywalker may have been the nominal hero of the original Star Wars movies, but we suspect an entire generation of youngsters secretly wanted to be Han Solo instead.
3. James T KirkStar Trek
What more can be said about one of the most famous names in TV and cinema, science fiction or otherwise? A cunning strategist, natural leader, and irrepressibly virile, Kirk’s mannerisms and appetite for alien ladies have been repeatedly sent up in everything from Futurama to the sublime Galaxy Quest.
Perfectly embodied by William Shatner in the original series, an animated TV spin-off and seven feature films, the Kirk baton has since passed on to Chris Pine, who plays a fresh-faced version of the character with youthful brio.
Now well over 40 years old, the Star Trek franchise is still as popular as ever, and the characters introduced in the original series – Spock, Bones, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu – remain among the most memorable adventurers in the genre. And then there’s Kirk himself, sitting proudly at the helm of the Enterprise, muttering his thoughts into the ship’s log, before leading his crew off on yet another adventure. The sci-fi genre wouldn’t be the same without him.
2. Luke SkywalkerStar Wars
Yes, Han Solo was the more interesting character, as we’ve already established, but Luke Skywalker got a fine character arc of his own in the Star Wars movies.
From a somewhat sulky wide-eyed farm boy in 1977’s Star Wars, the sequels saw Skywalker gradually evolve, from plucky pilot to embittered son in The Empire Strikes Back, and then to Jedi master and saviour of the galaxy and his father’s very soul in Return Of The Jedi.
1. Ellen RipleyThe Alien franchise
What does a sci-fi protagonist require to be classed as truly great? Wit? Cunning? Resourcefulness? Leadership? Bravery? Tenderness? Ideally, they’d need to embody all of those. It’s worth noting, then, that very few genre characters can display all of these traits – if you’re lucky, they’ll bring two or three to the screen. But it takes great writing and acting to make a character fully rounded, and that’s comparatively rare in science fiction, or any genre movie.
The Alien franchise’s Ellen Ripley is a rare exception, and it’s fair to say that her character is nuanced in the way her male counterparts seldom are – far from merely stoic or virtuous, she’s flawed and human. When we first meet Ripley in Alien, we may not even be sure if we particularly like her or not. It’s her repeated encounters with a creature from another world – a creature which appears to embody everything that we find subconsciously horrifying about reproduction and human nature – which gradually change her over the course of the movies. She emerges as the one character capable of meeting the creature head-on in Alien, and finds the strength within herself to face an entire army of the hideous things in Aliens.
Ripley embodies all of the traits we might wish we had, but possesses enough frailties and ordinary human kindness to make her recognisable as an average person, too. Ultimately, Ripley wants the same simple things we want: companionship, a family, and a decent night’s sleep, free from nightmares.
This is why, we’d argue, she’s the ultimate sci-fi movie protagonist.