Science Fiction’s Ten Best One-On-One Fights To The Death

Ripley vs. The Alien Queen. Kirk vs. Spock. Luke vs. Vader. We run down some of SF's best fights.

By David Wharton | Updated

Science fiction film and television has provided no shortage of jaw-dropping battle scenes over the years. We’ve watched ships stalk each other through thick nebula haze, sleek starfighters dancing through fields of debris, and burning dreadnoughts make one final, defiant suicide charge against the enemy. But while some of the genre’s most memorable moments were played out on a huge scale, there are plenty of smaller, more personal battles that were just as intense and dramatic. After all, it’s easy to go to war when you’ve got a fleet of the galaxy’s finest behind you, but what about when it’s just you against the person/thing across from you, and only one of you is walking away alive?

In honor of The Hunger Games hitting theaters tomorrow, we here at GFR decided to look back at our favorite mano-a-mano SF fights over the years. These dustups are one-on-one and to-the-death. No one has to actually die, but the intent to kill has to be there, on one side or both. Let’s step into the ring and meet our first contenders… (Note: You can click the images to watch video of the fights.)

King Kong vs. Godzilla in King Kong vs. Godzilla
It’s the massive monster grudge match of the century. America’s mightiest mega-terror and champion skyscraper climber King Kong set against Godzilla, that implacable Tokyo stomper from Japan. It doesn’t matter that it’s just two men in rubber suits flailing wildly at each other. It doesn’t even matter that King Kong is actually far too small to fight Godzilla, and that they had to make him bigger for the purposes of this film. This was the fight that everyone had been waiting for, and it delivers. Two of nature’s biggest mistakes slug it out in the barren Japanese wilderness. Only one will survive. Will it be King Kong, with his superior strength and cunning, or will it be Godzilla, with his nuclear breath and razor-sharp teeth? Only fate can decide.

Kirk vs. Spock in Star Trek, “Amok Time”
In the Star Trek episode “Amok Time” the Enterprise races to Vulcan in a desperate attempt to save Spock’s life. He’s got a bad case of Pon Farr and the only cure is to mate with his Vulcan fiancée. But she rejects him and instead pits Spock’s raging hormones in a battle against his best friend… James T. Kirk. What follows is a vicious fight to the death in which no one will be the winner. Kirk searches for a way out of what’s about to happen, but can’t find it. Spock is so deep in the throes of Pon Farr he’s lost all semblance of sanity, and doesn’t even seem to know that it’s his best friend he’s about to kill. After a brutal, bloody battle to the pulsing beats of Star Trek’s iconic fight music, a now broken Spock wins and returns to the Enterprise believing he’s killed his best friend. Kirk is saved only by some last minute trickery from McCoy, who gives his captain a drug which simulates death, but few battles have ever been more personal.

Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader in The Return of the Jedi
Some may argue that the lightsaber duel from Empire Strikes Back is the better of the two, but we went with Jedi because the stakes are higher. This battle isn’t just physical, it’s mental, as Luke is assaulted by both Vader’s blade and the Emperor’s manipulations. In spite of Luke’s best efforts to resist the Dark Side, eventually Vader goads him back into the fight by threatening Leia, and for the first time, Luke truly gives in to his hate. As John Williams’ score soars and the Emperor laughs, we wonder if this time Luke will truly fall, just like his father before him. Luke takes Vader’s hand and hesitates, realizing just how close the precipice he has gone. It’s a victory not just over his opponent, but over the Dark Side itself. As the Emperor torments Luke with dark energy, the man once called Anakin finds the flicker of good still left in him and sacrifices his own life to save his son.

Ellen Ripley vs. The Alien Queen in Aliens
After narrowly escaping LV-426 before the colony’s reactor went critical, Ripley, Bishop, and Newt enjoy a moment of calm and relief. That tranquility is short lived, as the Alien Queen emerges from the drop shuttle’s landing gear and rips Bishop in half. Knowing she’s outsized and outclassed, Ripley turns to the only thing capable of evening the odds: the cargo loader exo-suit she demonstrated a knack for earlier in the film. In one of the most bad-ass moments in film history, Ripley tromps out and hisses the unforgettable line, “Get away from her, you bitch!” What follows is a clash between two furious and protective mothers willing to die — and willing to kill — on behalf of their children. Even with the loader to compensate for the size difference, Ripley barely survives the encounter, finally blowing the alien bitch out the airlock. Sadly, not even maternal instinct could save Ripley from the enemy that was to come: the sequels.

Dutch vs. The Predator in Predator
Predator delivers vicious attack after vicious attack, but in the end it’s all up to Dutch. His entire team slaughtered by an alien hunter of unbelievable skill, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s badass Special Forces character, Alan “Dutch” Schaefer, finds himself alone in the jungle as the last line of defense against one ugly motherfucker. He responds by giving himself over to the moment, going full badass, covering himself in mud and turning himself from the hunter into the hunted. It doesn’t work. Dutch baits the Predator into a trap but is eventually ensnared himself. The two slug it out in epic hand-to-hand combat, which leaves Dutch battered and barely able to move. He wins by triggering a trap to crush the Predator, who in turn triggers a self-destruct mechanism while laughing at the man who thought he’d defeated him. Dutch escapes with his life, but not much else.

Kaneda vs. Tetsuo in Akira
Kaneda never really had a chance. But when his best friend Tetsuo goes mad, driven to threaten humanity after discovering new and unheard-of powers, Kaneda feels responsible. Whether he has a chance or not, Kaneda sets out to stop him. The two face off over heaps of rubble and destruction, Tetsuo lashing out at his former friend with his mind, punishing him with all the anger and resentment he’s built up towards his friend over their long relationship. Though he lacks special powers himself, Kaneda refuses to back down and comes after Tetsuo with the best arsenal readily available, firing wildly at his friend, almost as though he’s forgotten the person Tetsuo once was. Tetsuo must be stopped, and to save the world and right something that’s gone horribly wrong, Kaneda must murder the boy who was once his best friend.

Picard vs. Gul Madred in Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Chain of Command”
In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Chain of Command” Jean-Luc Picard is captured and handed over to a Cardassian interrogator named Gul Madred. In theory, Madred is supposed to be torturing Picard for information about Starfleet deployments, but Madred never actually asks about any of that. Instead, he strings Picard up and simply asks him the same question over, and over, and over again: How many lights do you see? There are four and Picard says so, but Madred continues to insist there are five and punishes Picard when he fails to tell that lie. By the end, Picard’s certainty of reality is slipping. On the surface this seems like a fairly one-sided, cerebral contest, but for both men the stakes are their lives. Madred must crack Picard or face the consequences. Picard must stand fast or betray everything he holds dear. And as the two face off, sweating and insisting on their own version of reality, it becomes something more than just torture. It’s a battle of wills manifested physically, fought with all the struggle and pain of any fight fought with fists. Only one of them can win.

Marcus Cole vs. Neroon in Babylon 5, “Grey 17 Is Missing”
The Ranger Marcus Cole faced one of his greatest tests in the otherwise forgettable season-three episode “Grey 17 Is Missing.” The Warrior Caste Minbari Neroon has come to Babylon 5 to kill Ambassador Delenn, believing she is unworthy to lead the Rangers. Instead he finds Marcus blocking his path, challenging Neroon to denn-shah, a fight to the death. The battle that follows is swift and brutal, eventually leaving Marcus bloody and bruised, but not broken. Even barely able to stand, he refuses to let Neroon pass, reciting the Ranger oath: “We are Rangers. We walk in the dark places no others will enter. We stand on the bridge, and no one may pass. We live for the One, we die for the One!” In the end, Neroon spares Delenn, not because Marcus won the fight, but because Marcus, a human, was willing to die for her.

Neo vs. Agent Smith in The Matrix
There are tons of amazing fight sequences to choose from in the Matrix movies. Even the subpar sequels include some truly unforgettable demonstrations of ass-kickery. We’re choosing the subway fight between Neo and Agent Smith because, aside from being brutal and awesome, we get to see Neo really unleash all that kung-fu they downloaded into his brain against his archenemy, Agent Smith. And at first, Neo holds his own against Smith, and it looks like he might even triumph. The two combatants tear the crap out of the subway station, punching through support columns and pulverizing walls. Every time Neo gets knocked down, he gets back up, but it soon becomes clear that it won’t be enough. He tricks Smith down onto the tracks, where the Agent is sideswiped by a train. When Smith emerges unscathed from even this, Neo has to face the cold, hard truth: it’s time to run.

Malcolm Reynolds vs. The Operative in Serenity
The vicious government agent known only as The Operative has been pursuing the crew of Serenity, and specifically River Tam. Finally, Malcolm Reynolds and the rest learn why: she carries a terrible secret in her brain, the knowledge of a dark atrocity the government wants to keep buried. Mal is determined to expose that horror to the entire ‘verse, and The Operative is willing to kill to keep it secret. What follows is a battle of both fists and ideologies, with Mal trying desperately to reach the console that will let him broadcast the government’s dirty laundry. It’s Mal, a dirty-tricks street fighter, versus one of the galaxy’s most highly trained killers. Mal takes punishment after punishment, not caring if he survives as long as he can broadcast the government’s secrets. In the end, Serenity loses points for having Mal survive the Operative’s paralyzing punch thanks to a deus-ex-machina metal plate in his back that’s never been mentioned before, but the fight is still unforgettable because it’s so brutal and rooted in character.

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