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Bruce Willis' 8 best sci-fi roles: From 'Death Becomes Her' to 'The Sixth Sense' to 'Looper'
Not including the voice of every ‘90s kid’s favorite animated dog, Spike, from Rugrats Go Wild.
From his first uncredited role as “Man Entering Diner as Delaney Leaves” in the 1980 film The First Deadly Sin to becoming one of the biggest names in Hollywood, Bruce Willis has had a career few could imagine or hope for. Along the way, Willis portrayed characters including Peter Novins in the first episode of the 1985 The Twilight Zone revival, the voice of the baby Mikey in Look Who’s Talking, and David Addison Jr. in 66 episodes of Moonlighting.
Willis crawled through ventilation in search of justice as John McClane; he fought for love, money, and survival in Pulp Fiction; and he provided the voice of every ‘90s kid’s favorite animated dog, Spike, in Rugrats Go Wild. Willis was and is more than an action hero, playing in a diverse set of genre sandboxes, not the least of which is science fiction. Almost from the beginning Willis showed a willingness to jump into the weird and wacky in pursuit of a good story. Or even just a fun one.
In March of last year, Willis’ family released a statement announcing the actor’s retirement, citing health issues. The statement went on to explain that the 67-year-old actor was diagnosed with aphasia, a cognitive disorder which impacts a person’s ability to understand and convey speech. Over the course of his career, Willis racked up 145 acting credits, with his last role as Valmora in the upcoming action thriller Assassin slated for release in 2023. With Willis’ career coming to a close, now is a better time than ever to revisit some of his best genre roles.
RELATED: Bruce Willis retires from acting due to health issues
DEATH BECOMES HER
By the time Death Becomes Her (now streaming on Peacock!) hit theaters in 1992, Willis had already starred in Die Hard and its first sequel. Convincingly holding a gun while sweatily shouting catchphrases might have been enough for us to fall in love with Willis, but it obviously wasn’t enough for him. Death Becomes Her reminded audiences that Willis could tell a joke and was comfortable with more than bad guys and bullets.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, and Isabella Rosellini, the story centers on the conflict between friends turned enemies. Madeline Ashton (Streep) is a washed up actress nearing the end of her career. During a visit with her friend Helen (Hawn) and Helen’s fiancé and plastic surgeon Dr. Ernest Menville (Willis), Madeline steals Ernest from Helen, leaving her heartbroken.
Years later, Madeline and Ernest are old and miserable, with their careers in the dumps. Meanwhile, Helen is enjoying a second life and a new book about to debut. Attempting to keep up with Helen, Madeline consumes a mysterious potion which promises eternal life, with a few inconvenient caveats. Dr. Menville’s scalpel skills are sure to come in handy once Madeline realizes she can’t be killed, but she can be injured.
In 1996, a global pandemic wipes out most of the human species and drives the survivors into compounds deep underground. Forty years later, James Cole (Willis) lives in a prison complex beneath the streets of Philadelphia. He is given an opportunity to go back in time, recover the original virus, and return it to scientists in the future to develop a cure. In exchange, he will be given a reduced sentence.
That’s the setup of Terry Gilliam’s 1995 science fiction thriller 12 Monkeys, streaming now on Peacock. On arrival, Cole discovers he has been sent back to 1990, six years before the pandemic kicks off. Lacking the skills to live in our world he is quickly arrested and sent to a psychiatric facility where he meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). Goines is an environmentalist believed to be a member of the Twelve Monkeys army, an ecoterrorist group believed to have released the virus. The truth, of course, is much more complicated, increasingly so with each additional jump through time.
THE FIFTH ELEMENT
In director Luc Besson’s 1997 film The Fifth Element, the only thing more star-studded than the cast is space itself. Willis runs the show but shares screen time with the likes of Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, and Chris Tucker, to name a few.
The story opens at an ancient Egyptian temple in the early 20th century. There, an alien race known as the Mondoshawans meet with a human priest guarding the temple. They take with them four stones representing the four classical elements of earth, air, fire, and water and in their place, they leave a message. One day, a great evil will awaken and the Mondoshawans will return with the elements. When combined with a mysterious fifth element, they will become a weapon capable of defeating the great evil.
Three and a half centuries later, Corbin Dallas (Willis) is a cab driver just trying to live his life beneath the shadow of an ancient prophecy he’s never heard of. When he accidentally stumbles upon the fifth element, in the form of a human woman named Leeloo (Jovovich), Dallas must pull off an interplanetary heist while avoiding the darkest forces in the universe... or die trying.
The only thing better than saving the world in space, is saving the world in space TWICE! In Michael Bay’s definitive disaster film Armageddon, Willis stars alongside Billy Bob Thornton, Liv Tyler, Ben Affleck, Michael Clarke Duncan, Peter Stormare, and Steve Buscemi, all of whom are in imminent danger from a planet-killing asteroid.
When a passing comet disturbs the asteroid belt, it pushes a wave of meteorites into the inner solar system, some of which make direct contact with Earth. Those medium-sized impactors deliver a sequence of bad days to our little planet, but they are ultimately survivable. What isn’t is the Texas-sized asteroid now headed our way. With little more than two weeks on the clock, Earth’s bravest and brightest slap together a plan to save everyone. But who will they send on the most important and dangerous space mission in human history? An oil drilling crew, of course.
The logic, flawed as it may be, is that it’s easier to train drillers to become astronauts than the other way around. We’re not sure that would make for the best survival plan, but it makes for a hell of a movie. What follows is a tense journey through deep space and the sort of perspective on life that you can only get from a distance.
THE SIXTH SENSE
This is the movie that put director M. Night Shyamalan (whose latest film Knock at the Cabin is now available on digital) on the map. The Sixth Sense (streaming now on Peacock!) follows child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Willis) as he arrives home from receiving an award with his wife. Once inside, they discover one of Malcolm’s old patients in their home. The patient claims Malcolm failed him, then he shoots Malcolm before shooting himself.
The story picks up months later, with Malcolm having seemingly recovered as he begins working with a disturbed 9-year-old boy named Cole (Haley Joel Osment). Cole reminds Malcolm of his previous patient, triggering a subconscious desire to help Cole as a way of making amends for perceived past failures. Cole admits that he sees dead people walking around in the world, mixed in with the living, and they don’t know they are dead. Malcolm eventually believes Cole and sets about helping Cole help the dead, including one lost soul that no one expects.
Willis returned for Shyamalan’s next feature film at-bat in the grounded superhero movie Unbreakable. This time Willis plays David Dunn, the sole survivor of a horrific train crash. Not only does he survive but, miraculously, he doesn’t have a scratch on him. While leaving a memorial service for those lost in the accident, Dunn finds a note on his windshield with a question and an invitation. It asks the last time he was sick, and directs him to an art gallery run by the wheelchair bound Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson).
Price has brittle bone disease, a condition which makes him incredibly susceptible to injury. Having lived from the moment of birth with the excruciating reality of constantly breaking bones, and taking solace in the world of comic books, Price has dedicated his life to finding extraordinary people at the opposite end of the spectrum: those with superhuman strength and imperviousness to injury. He finds his hero in David Dunn, and we learn the terrible truth.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a movie in possession of a killer cast, must be in want of Bruce Willis. Sin City packs the cast to overflowing with the likes of Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Benicio Del Toro, Michael Clarke Duncan, Brittany Murphy, Josh Hartnett, and, of course, Bruce Willis.
Willis plays Detective John Hartigan, a man trying to make good in a city gone bad. His story begins hunting a monster, the child killer Ethan Roark Jr., son of Senator Ethan Roark and nephew of Cardinal Patrick Henry Roark. His powerful relations protect him, so Hartigan dispenses justice with a bullet. Several of them. Hoping to save Roark’s latest victim, a young girl named Nancy, Hartigan shoots Junior — blasting off his ear, his hand, and his genitals — before losing consciousness himself.
Later, while Hartigan is recovering from his injuries, he receives a visit from Senator Roark, who makes it clear that he will take the blame for Junior’s crimes or watch his entire family die. He spends years in prison, eventually confesses, and is paroled, but it’s a trap. Hartigan will have to stop the Roarks and save Nancy one last time.
Director Rian Johnson — the mind behind The Last Jedi, Knives Out, Glass Onion, and Poker Face (now streaming on Peacock) — worked with Willis to give us one of the best time travel movies of all time. It opens in 2044, when a 25-year-old Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) works as assassin for a crime syndicate which exists 30 years in the future.
To hide their crimes, the syndicate sends their enemies into the past, where there bodies can’t be found. The targets appear, with their hands tied and their faces covered in masks. The looper makes the kill and collects payment in the form of silver bars attached to the body.
If a looper lives until 2074, they are sent back in time and killed by their younger selves. While they've never seen their own older face, a looper knows when it happens because the body has gold bars strapped to it, instead of silver. After closing their own loop, a looper’s contract is over and they are free to live their live as they will. At least until 2074.
But when it comes time for Joe to close his own loop, his older self (Willis) appears unmasked and untied, and escapes. The two of them (or the one of them, we’re not totally clear) must work together if they hope to survive and change their destiny.
Start your Bruce Willis movie marathon with The Sixth Sense, Death Becomes Her, and 12 Monkeys, all streaming on Peacock!