We don't find out what our science fiction/fantasy heroes are made of, until everything seems hopeless and their backs are against the wall. The greatest SF stories also contain the greatest "all seems lost" moments, and here are our favorites.
There are a few flavors of "all seems lost" moments in science fiction and fantasy and we'll break them down below, with our favorite examples. Often, the very greatest "all seems lost" moments lead to the best "fuck yeah" moments, as if by magic.
Note: I am sure there's a page on this phenomenon over on TVTropes, but I didn't go look over there, because I didn't want this roundup to be just a repost of the TVTropes page. And of course, this isn't an exhaustive list because otherwise it would be as big as the internet.
So here are the main types of "all is lost" moments:
All Is Lost and The Hero's Deception Has Been Found Out!
The good guy has just been pretending to be something or someone — but then by the end of the movie, his/her feelings have changed — and then the original deception is found out, just when things are at their worst! Oh noes!
Avatar actually has two different "all is lost" moments in one film — the second one is during the final battle, right before all the critters come to the rescue. But the first comes a bit earlier, when the Na'vi discover that Jake has been playing them all along and reporting to Colonel Evilpants about them. Jake's treachery is uncovered — just as his Avatar gets shut down and then the military starts attacking the Hometree, trashing their harmonious way of life. All seems lost!
The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway also features sort of a weird "imposter" thing for our main character, although it's a bit different, and we shouldn't spoil it here. Our hero is revealed to be not what he seems — but at the same time, he only has a very short time left to save the world from some very nasty corporate types. Will he pull himself together and get over his identity crisis in time to save everything? Will he fuck!
Buffy The Vampire Slayer, "Becoming Part 2" features almost everything rotten — Buffy's forced to plunge her lover, Angel, into Hell — mere moments after Willow has succeeded in restoring his lost soul to him. To make matters worse, Buffy's mom has found out her long-kept secret — that she's the Slayer and she's been sneaking off to fight the forces of darkness. And she's been expelled from school, to boot. It's off to L.A. for Buffy's first foray into waitressing (but not her last.) This season finale could also fit into the next category...
The "Worst Has Just Happened" Cliffhanger!
Lots of television shows (and a few movies) do epic cliffhangers, but only a few of these involve the really unthinkable happening, just before we smash to black or go to credits.
Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Best Of Both Worlds." The end of "The Best Of Both Worlds, Part 1" is considered an ultra-classic for good reason — not only is Picard Borgified, but Riker is preparing to blow the Borg to oblivion. You don't know whether to root for Riker's plan to succeed or not — since it'll result in the death of Picard and then we'll be stuck with four years of Captain Riker. I first saw this episode in reruns — I can't even imagine having to wait three months for the resolution of this cliffhanger.
Babylon 5: "Shadow Dancing"/"Z'ha'dum". Our heroes start their war with the Shadows and achieve a pretty Pyrrhic victory. Then, Sheridan dumps Delenn and follows his presumed-dead wife to the Shadow homeworld. At the end, Sheridan jumps into a deep black pit while the White Star obliterates the Shadow headquarters, and it looks like he's done for... until next season at least.
The Knife Of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness ends with a gut-dropping cliffhanger, which we're loathe to spoil here since it's still relatively new. Suffice to say, our hero makes a grievous error and his friend is in dire, horrendous straits.
All Is Lost AND There's Slow-Mo!
You know it's bad when everything slows down to crawl and people's mouths open and close in slowed-down agony. Events have reached such a terrible low point, even the passage of time has been dragged down.
Serenity's big "all is lost" moment only features a smidgen of slow-mo — when Simon gets shot and takes forever to fall. But then you get slow-mo's boon companion, the weird muffling of sounds, a moment later, while River is standing over her apparently dying brother. You see Jayne firing his rifle, but you only dimly hear the sound, as if River's concern for her brother is blocking out all sounds. And meanwhile, it's not in this clip, but Mal is getting totally pwned by Chiwetl Ejiofor, who's practicing for killing everybody you care about in Children Of Men. And of course, this "all is lost" moment leads into an amazing chain of "fuck yeah" moments, as befitting one of the greatest movies of all time. (I seem to remember the final Buffy episode also features a pretty intense bit of slow-mo at its "all is lost" moment.)
The Matrix features the ultimate slow-mo moment of defeat, as Agent Smith empties his gun, with agonizing slowness, into Neo. Who's only brought back to digital life as The One after Trinity gives a huge speech about how much she loves him. Meanwhile, the Nebuchadnezzar is under attack and it seems like everyone's going to be toasted, until Neo becomes the digital messiah.
The Lord Of The Rings has a few great "all is lost" moments, chief among them the Battle of Helms Deep, at which an overwhelming force threatens to crush Aragorn and his people. And at least, in Peter Jackson's film version, there's a fair bit of slow-mo going on, especially when Gandalf shows up on his white horse and rears up, majestically. Thank goodness the Ents and other reiforcements show up to save the day.
Battlestar Galactica, "Exodus Part 2" — Speaking of the cavalry... the Galactica swoops down (literally) to rescue the people trapped on New Caprica, but gets severely outgunned and outmatched by the Cylon baseships that show up. The Galactica is badly damaged and seems on the verge of being torn to shreds — Adama's hit by an explosion and falls slowly to the deck. And then the Pegasus appears, to save the day. (And get blown to hell. But you can't have everything.)
All Is Lost Until There's A Montage!
Sometimes, events reach a point that's so dire, there's only one cure: a montage, showing how things can be fixed. Often, it's a montage showing events we've already witnessed, but showing that things are actually much different than we'd thought.
Doctor Who, "The Last Of The Time Lords" — Oh, come on, admit it. You love this bit. Everything is totally hopeless. The Doctor's been shrunk down to Dobby/Gollum/whatever, Martha's been captured along with her whole extended family, the super Time Lord-killing gun is no more, and the entire planet Earth has been subjugated and turned into the Master's armory for his war on the universe. There's no hope whatsoever! Until we call on the awesome power of... the Montage.
All Is Just Generally Lost And We're Screwed, In General.
Some "all is lost" moments don't quite fit into any category, but they're still totally awesome.
There's a chunk of the middle of Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks where it seems vanishingly unlikely that Horza will make it to the Orbital in time, in between being stranded in the ocean and captured by that cult of offal cannibals. There are still 250 pages to go at this point, so you have an inkling he'll make it somehow, but you have no clue how. "Horza's head was feeling very light; there was a taste he knew too well at the back of his throat, as though some of the acid from his wrists had somehow found its way to his tongue. He strained again at his bonds behind him, feeling the muscles shake." The situation is also dire at the end of Matter, but that's more a case of appearances reflecting reality.
Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Indiana Jones and Marion are tied up. The Nazis have won, and they're planning to expose Indy to the wrath of the Old Testament God. Of course, the Nazis don't know enough to keep their eyes closed, and they get a bit more than they bargained for.
Sunshine definitely has a pretty bleak set of circumstances towards its ending. The theme of sun-inflicted madness that's run throughout the film reaches a peak, with an insane survivor of the previous expedition going nuts and killing all of the Icarus' crew members — until only Capa survives to complete their mission. And it looks, for a moment, like he's failed for sure, and Earth is doomed.
The X-Men, during the original Dark Phoenix saga — the Hellfire Club has defeated the X-Men, and managed to turn Jean Gray evil and converted her into their new Black Queen. Everything is going ass-shaped. Until Wolverine climbs out of the sewer, that is.
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978). When you realize that the pod people really have taken over, and all really is lost. If only the human race had had Nicole Kidman on our side!
The Terminator ends with a pretty heavy moment of "everything went to shit," with Sarah Connor sitting over the dead body of her lover/protector Kyle Reese, overcome with grief and pulling a piece of shrapnel out of her leg — and then the metal torso starts crawling after her again. Shit!
Aliens. Also from James Cameron — what can we say? The man knows how to make us feel the depths of despair — comes this fantastic moment in Bill Paxton's acting career. "Game over, man!" The dropship's crashed, and "they" mostly come out at night. But still — with defeatist attitudes like that, Bill, you'll never take over Weber Gaming and found your own church.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back has one of the greatest stomach-pit-dropping moments of all time, when Luke's hand gets lopped off, right before Darth Vader drops a bomb on him — the fact that he's Luke's father. Han Solo is already encased in carbonite, and everything is boned. And then Luke drops into space. Dude!
Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. I know, we already had a Trek example. But this is the all-time classic. Marooned at the center of a dead planet. Buried alive. And Spock, of course, just told them repairs to the Enterprise would take way too long. Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaan! The camera pans upwards, propelled by the force of Kirk's rage and despair.
Additional reporting by Kelly Faircloth. Thanks also to Rus McLaughlin, Diana Gill, Eric Zuckerman, Georgie Thomas, David Boyle, James Enge, Morgan Johnson, Chris Hsiang, Jessy Randall, Renee Byers, Wayne Nix, Graeme McMillan, Javier Grillo-Marxuach, Joey C., The One True Bix, Ryan M. Holt, Mia Judkins, Tony Goggin, Kevin Zero, Mekkalekkah, Adam Cohen, Theresa DeLucci, Sam and anyone else I forgot!