Being the genre of the future, or at the very least, of speculation, science fiction needs to both be awesomely creative and, more importantly, relatable to its audience. As such, sci-fi movies often fall back on plot devices and tropes common across all genres, especially to ratchet up the tension and keep things exciting—and what’s more exciting than death? And murder is even better—the more ruthless the bad guys(s), the more we’ll root for the good guys.
But, just like a good majority of the classic Sherlock Holmes stories don’t have a dead body in them, cool science fiction movies are not required to feature death and killing if they don’t want to. With high stakes expected by mainstream audiences, it’s tempting to kill characters off, but here are a few sci-fi flicks that manage to forego death (almost) entirely.
Disclaimer: we can handily separate a Shakespeare comedy from a Shakespeare tragedy by checking to see if anyone dies. And while it might be fun to think the genre of science fiction is too sophisticated for such easy labels, this classification still pretty much works. So, do sci-fi movies without murder end up being comedies? Sometimes, but even so, I’ve tried to not lean too heavily here on sci-fi movies that are only comedies. If this list was allowed to include only great sci-fi comedies, it would look a bit different, or possibly be dominated only by spoofs.
Back to the Future (1985) and Back to the Future III (1990)
Although Marty McFly’s very existence is threatened if he doesn’t get his parents to hook up in 1955, no one actually dies in Back to the Future. In the old west setting of Back to the Future III, despite gunslingers and outlaws galore, there also isn’t a single killing—in fact, the plot specifically hinges on the prevention of both Doc Brown and Clara’s deaths. The only Back to the Future film to feature a violent death is the second installment, in which George McFly is shot by Biff Tannen off-screen and in an alternate timeline. For all the heavy excitement of these films, the lack of death centers the stakes around personal choices and nuances of life, rather than big end-of-the-world stuff.
Very few of the ghosts in Ghostbusters really seem to be “the ghost of” anybody. True, the first ghost in the New York Public Library is of the traditional Victorian wispy, haunting tradition (where are you from, originally?), but the rest are slimers, demi-gods, and ghouls, meaning we don’t think too much about how these ghosts “died,” before becoming ghosts. Also, by virtue of the fact that ghosts are by definition not alive, this film manages to not feature any real death, despite kind of being about death. If ghosts occasionally represent a metaphor for death that means the boys in grey essentially bust death itself. Ghostbusters ends up being anti-death, twice.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Finding episodes of the original Star Trek TV show in which no one dies is bizarrely kind of hard, and sort of a shame considering the show’s general life-affirming vibe. And because the phrase “he’s dead, Jim,” is such a big part of the classic Star Trek canon, finding a Star Trek movie in which no one dies is even harder. However, when the stakes are all about saving whales from extinction so they can communicate with advanced aliens in the future, there’s no need for a shocking murder to further the plot. Sure, as Kirk reminds us, we’re “talking about the end of every life on Earth,” in this movie, but mostly we’re talking about whales.
A cult movie, and a slightly more grown-up Flight of the Navigator crossed with Space Camp, Explorers serves as wish-fulfillment for anyone who dreamed they could build a spaceship in their backyard. And while it might feel like a knock-off E.T. at times, this movie has some soul and charm all of its own. Strangely, it also marks the feature film debuts of both Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix!
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Perhaps the most grown-up science fiction movie on this list, and probably one of the first to be taken seriously, The Day the Earth Stood Still features a menacing giant robot, but no death. True, the human-looking alien visitor Klaatu does briefly die, but is later resurrected. The coolest thing about The Day the Earth Stood Still is probably the idea that it’s a non-violent movie that paradoxically delivers a potential alien threat. If we as a species don’t change our violent ways, then someone like Klaatu (and his robot muscle Gort) will be forced to incinerate our whole planet for the good of the universe.
Here’s one with another fake-out death: E.T. himself! Labeling E.T. a “family film” might be an easy way to exclude it from a serious discussion about “good” science fiction movies, but I personally find you have to be a pretty terrible person to not love E.T. even a little bit. While it’s true that E.T. doesn’t contain so much a memorable plot as it does memorable scenes, it still feels refreshing in its non-violent approach to aliens.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Unfairly, Spielberg might have the corner-market on big-feel-good science fiction movies containing zero death, which is odd when you consider he’s also responsible for the existence of the PG-13 rating. (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was considered to be too violent to be given a regular “PG” score, and thus PG-13 was invented.) While deeply flawed and almost lazy in its attempts to actually explore what the aliens are all about, Close Encounters of the Third Kind still reigns supreme in setting a great standard for emotional wonderment in regard to how we would view extraterrestrial life. The take away here is this: we probably wouldn’t understand a whole lot about what aliens were up to, but that doesn’t mean they’d be trying to kill us.
Fantastic Voyage (1966)
This one probably doesn’t qualify entirely, as there is an accidental death right near the end of the movie. BUT, it is definitely an accident and not a violent murder. If science fiction movies are supposed to simplify complicated science fiction concepts and make them palatable and exciting for a mass audience, then Fantastic Voyage is one of the best sci-fi flicks ever. Often erroneously believed to have been based on an Isaac Asimov novel (he wrote the novelization of the screenplay faster than the movie was filmed), this story of people being shrunk down in a submarine to save a person’s life is as thrilling as it imaginative. How can you not love a movie where the tiny protagonists escape certain doom by riding on a teardrop?
So, my criterion here was probably a little stiff (and maybe too loose, too?) and a larger discussion of sci-fi movies light on violence is welcome, too. But did I leave any good ones out? Chime in below!
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.