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The best sci-fi heroes, ranked

The idea of the sci-fi hero has evolved a great deal since the earliest days of the genre. From Buck Rogers all the way to Katniss Everdeen, what these heroes represent has changed a great deal. In spite of those changes, though, there are a few things that every great sci-fi hero has in common.

The most important is, of course, the way they do or don’t hold our attention. A great sci-fi hero is captivating, someone you want to root for so badly that everything else becomes secondary. That could mean that they are plucky upstarts or ultra-reluctant heroes. As long as they captivate us, nothing else matters.

10. Max Rockatansky, the Mad Max movies

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Although he’s been played by two separate actors, Max’s desire to do good in a world ravaged beyond recognition is the character’s defining through line. He may be gruff and reserved, but, especially in the sequels, Max is the kind of man who finds himself reluctantly fighting with the good guys.

He may think their cause is hopeless, but he doesn’t have anything better to do. Fury Road, which sidelines Max in favor of other characters, may be the best example of this, as Max remains gruff and reserved, and is paired with characters even more competent than he is.

9. Snake Plissken, Escape from New York

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Kurt Russell was John Carpenter’s consummate screen partner, and Escape from New York may be the movie that best sums up their collaboration. Playing Snake Plissken, Russell is all aggression and pent-up rage.

When he’s tasked with saving the president from a version of New York that has been turned into an open jail, Snake proves that he’s got the kind of temerity to get the job done. Thanks in part to his tank top and tattoos, Snake defined what it meant to look badass for an entire generation of young wannabes.

8. Luke Skywalker, the Star Wars franchise

Luke Skywalker wielding his signature green lightsaber in RotJ.
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Perhaps the first character you think of when you think of a sci-fi hero, Luke is the chosen one who blows up the Death Star and saves the day. Mark Hamill has gotten plenty of criticism over the years for his performance in the original trilogy, but Luke’s combination of petulance and earnestness is part of the point.

He’s the center of a franchise that has plenty going on at the fringes as well. Luke Skywalker is a hero’s hero, and even his return in The Last Jedi affirms that sometimes, you need to believe in your own legend in order to save the day.

7. Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games movies

The Hunger Games Catching Fire
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Explicitly modeled on characters like the Alien franchise’s Ripley, Katniss is so deeply compelling in part because she wants nothing to do with the drama she finds herself in. She finds herself in the Hunger Games because she wants to protect her sister, and eventually takes down an entire authoritarian regime simply because she’s told to.

Jennifer Lawrence’s wounded, reserved central performance is so crucial to the success of this character, as is our understanding that Katniss is largely indifferent to the question of rebellion, even as she becomes the leading symbol of it.

6. Sarah Connor, The Terminator movies

The Terminator star Linda Hamilton

Sarah Connor is just a normal woman in the first Terminator, and she spends the entire first movie running for her life. By the time Terminator 2: Judgment Day arrived in theaters seven years later, though, Sarah knew that an apocalypse was coming, and she was ready to meet the moment.

Laura Hamilton’s performance in Terminator 2 as a mother traumatized by events that haven’t even happened yet is one of the fiercest on this list, and makes her a protagonist worth rooting for time and time again.

5. Dominic Cobb, Inception

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A more recent addition to this pantheon, Dominic Cobb is one of Christopher Nolan’s greatest protagonists, in part because he spends so much of the movie investigating his own complicated backstory. More than anything, though, Dom is our anchor for understanding the complicated world of dreams that Nolan has carefully crafted.

Few actors could carry of the level of exposition that Leonardo DiCaprio is tasked with here with such aplomb, but he doesn’t just show us the world of Inception, he makes us want to dive deeper and deeper into it.

4. James Kirk, the Star Trek franchise

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
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Kirk is another character that has been played successfully by two different actors, and each of them had slightly different approaches to the role. What unites them, though, is that Captain Kirk is supremely confident in his own abilities and those of his colleagues.

He’s a natural leader, and that skill is one that seems to get the Enterprise out of trouble time and time again. William Shatner’s Kirk was one of the first sci-fi heroes that many people saw on a screen of any size, and for that alone, he’s one of the most indelible characters in sci-fi history.

3. Neo, The Matrix

The Matrix
Warner Bros. Pictures

Keanu Reeves’ turn as Neo in The Matrix and its sequels turned out to be one of the most important roles of his career. Neo is a man who realizes that the world he’s living in is nothing but a simulation, and he becomes determined to break free of the hold that world has on him.

Over the course of three movies, he does plenty of kung fu, but its Neo’s love for the world and for Trinity in particular that ultimately saves the day. Can he fight? Sure, but The Matrix wants us to know that love is more important.

2. Han Solo, the Star Wars franchise

han solo in star wars a new hope
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It felt necessary to get two Star Wars heroes on this list in part because Luke would be nothing without Han. Whereas Luke is earnest and sincere, Han is agnostic about almost everything. He’s funny, sarcastic, and really just looking out for himself, at least until the final moments of the first film, when he finally gets a chance to be the hero.

Han was the role that launched Harrison Ford to stardom, and it also created an archetype that every major sci-fi blockbuster needs. He’s a wiseass, but if you really need him to save the day, he’ll be happy to oblige, as long as he gets all the credit.

1. Ellen Ripley, the Alien movies

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The defining role of Sigourney Weaver’s career, and one of the great action heroines of all time, Ellen Ripley deserves her spot on this list more than almost anyone else. In Alien, Ripley is just one member of a broader team, but by the time Aliens rolls around, she knows more about the xenomorphs than any person alive.

It’s in Aliens that Ripley cements her reputation, and the subsequent sequels only add to the cascade of trauma that she experiences. These aliens just won’t leave her alone, but Ripley has the kind of steely determination required to simply endure.

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Joe Allen
Joe Allen is a freelance writer based in upstate New York focused on movies and TV.
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