Monday, July 15, 2013

Reader Top Ten: The Greatest Science Fiction Movie Endings

This month's edition of the Reader Top Ten is here.

The question this month is: what are your top ten greatest/favorite science fiction movie endings of all time?

Remember, a number #1 ranked ending will count for 3 points in the final tally, and a #2 ranked ending will rank for 2 points. Numbers 3 - 10 all earn just one point.

So, e-mail me (at your list of ten greatest science fiction movie endings starting today (and closing midnight Firday), and I'll post them all here on the blog.  

Take as much space as you need to explain your selections. 

What are the qualifications for a "great" ending? 

I leave that determination to you.  But for me, a great ending is one that shocks or surprises, yet also (at least retroactively) seems entirely consistent with the body of the movie. If a strong science fiction concept or message is relayed in this ending, all the better...

I'll start us off:

My Top Ten Greatest Science Fiction Movie Endings

10. Zardoz (1974): Zed (Sean Connery) and Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) escape the Eternal commune and the trap of immortality, and in a stirring time-lapse montage, we see them re-establish humanity and the family unit.  We watch Consuella give birth to their child, grow old, and we see the couple eventually die. The movie's ending, scored to Beethoven's 7th Symphony -- a paean to spontaneity and life -- suggests that the only immortality for our species in continuing the family line, not living forever.

9. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971): Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) are ruthlessly gunned-down by humans, but their intelligent baby, Milo/Caesar survives, and calls for his Mama. Of all the endings featured on my list, this one is the most intensely scarring, especially because we have known and loved Zira and Cornelius for three movies when their brutal end comes.  Even more psychically-damaging is the fact that Escape plays their relationship light and comedic throughout the film...right up until the bloody, jaw-dropping end

8. Escape from L.A. (1996): Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) plunges the Earth into total darkness using -- cue Newt Gingrich -- an EMP weapon called the Sword of Damocles.  At first blush, his action seems nihilistic, plunging humanity back five hundred years in terms of technology and civilization. But given how civilization in this film looks -- as represented by the Jerry Falwall-esque President (Cliff Robertson) -- it's actually not an end, but a re-boot, do-over or a new beginning.  "Welcome to the human race," Plissken utters, and it's time to start over.

7. The Matrix (1999). Neo (Keanu Reeves) flies.  The hero's journey is complete. Neo has mastered the system that was pitted against him, and now even has his former machine-overlords running scared.  To accent that fear, he places a taunting phone call, and then takes triumphantly to the skies...

6. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Spock (Leonard Nimoy) dies, but this movie isn't really about Spock's journey.  The entirety of this film is actually about Captain Kirk's (William Shatner) struggle to come to terms with his own mortality.  He has always believed he could "cheat" death and come out a winner.  Spock's sacrifice, contextualized with literary passages from A Tale of Two Cities, forces Kirk to reckon with the fact that how we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.

5. Star Wars (1977): Han Solo (Harrison Ford) saves Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and Luke uses the Force to destroy the Death Star.  This ending is a pure adrenaline high and extremely crowd-pleasing. But it is also one that redeems Han Solo, and establishes Luke Skywalker as the heir to an old order: the Jedi Knights. The following "medals" ceremony ends the film on a note of pure, unfettered joy.

4. Alien 3 (1992): After surviving two previous battles with the aliens, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) realizes that some things -- like the continued existence of the human race -- are more important than personal survival.  Although she is tempted, Jesus-like, by the forked-tongue Bishop (Lance Henriksen), Ripley resists calls to live on, and plunges to her death in a furnace, holding on to the alien queen as it is born...the only child, essentially, she will ever have.  Following Ripley's death, we hear a voice-over from the character, and get three separate shots of doors closing at the Fury 161 prison, an indication that the door is now closed on Alien sequels.  (Until of course, Alien Resurrection...).

3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): After contact with the mysterious monolith, astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea) ages and dies, only to be re-born -- or evolved -- as The Star Child.  This brilliant ending contextualizes our human existence as but a stage in a long, wondrous process, with the best yet to come.

2. Soylent Green (1973): Detective Thorn (Charlton Heston) is dragged away dying, shouting out the unsavory truth that no one wants to hear: "Soylent Green is PEOPLE!  It's PEOPLE!"  This punch-line still floats through the culture forty years later, and suggests the power and influence of the film's dark ending. number one:

1. Planet of the Apes (1968): Taylor (Charlton Heston) realizes he has come home (and that all of Dr. Zaius's anger is, in some fashion, justified...) when he sees the Statue of Liberty rusted and ruined on a craggy shore-line ahead.  The supreme irony is that Taylor is a misanthrope who is forced into the role of lawyer, essentially, defending his species, humanity.  Upon seeing the evidence -- Lady Liberty -- however, Taylor realizes that his "client," his very species, is dead guilty.


  1. I'm pleased to see Escape from L.A. on the list. Pure Plissken! That ending has always brought a wicked grin to my face, and it's left me desperate to watch Carpenter's proposed Escape from Earth. Great list, John.

  2. A great list, and I wouldn't argue with many of your choices. My only trouble with Planet of the Apes -- and also Soylent Green -- is this: If you know anything about these films at all, you probably know the twist, whether you've seen the movie or not. We can't, unfortunately, watch them in the state of innocence the original audience enjoyed -- just as almost everybody will know what's going to happen to Janet Leigh in Psycho.

    Regarding Star Wars, I've always thought it was great that the film ends with our heroes being given medals and basking in the acclaim of their comrades. If Star Wars was shot like most other big movies of the 1970s, you would have seen a battered and exhausted Luke Skywalker look out from his X-wing at the scattered fragments of the Death Star, then he would have uttered some apposite final line just before the cast list rolled.

  3. Anonymous8:18 PM

    Here here... I do believe I cackled out loud in theater at the end of Escape from L.A. Marvelous.

  4. John, excellent list. Your number one will be mine too.


  5. Anonymous3:29 AM

    Alien 3 is a great film and the ending is just majectic with the music and everything. It is hard for me to understand why people don't appreciate that movie more. I am one of those strange people that also like the 4th movie.


  6. Awesome list, John. What a fantastic topic, too.

  7. Nice list. I don't know that I would argue with any of their merit. I was wondering while reading this list, however, that it's a bit too easy. I wondered if you'd done a list on esoteric/obscure SF films or overlooked/under appreciated SF films? You know, the SF films that are a bit off the radar, or perhaps on the cusp of being SF or perhaps another genre. It might make an interesting posting.

  8. The ending form Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) was great. It really lives a though hanging for answer.


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