There are many actors who help make science fiction and fantasy awesome, but there are some faces you see again and again. And some actors just automatically brighten the screen whenever they appear. No matter what movie or TV show they're in, they make it better.
Here are 10 actors who automatically make everything better just by showing up.
Methodology: We came up with a pretty long list of actors whom we've generally liked, and tried to focus on people who'd blown us away in several things — or especially, people who had been in bad movies or shows, and made them a little bit better. A lot of actors were disqualified because they had just not quite managed to rise above some bad material, once or twice. There are also some great actors that we had to leave off, as we whittled the list down to our 10 favorites.
1. Alan Rickman
What he's been in: Harry Potter, Galaxy Quest, Truly Madly Deeply, Alice in Wonderland, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Dogma, Mesmer and A Fish Tale.
The worst thing he's done: Mesmer. Or if that's not science fictional enough, then Hitchhiker's.
Why he always makes things better: Alan Rickman just rules. He brings amazing character to every role, and he managed to be one of the funniest parts of Galaxy Quest, despite being surrounded by a pretty great cast. He was a huge part of making the dour Severus Snape lovable. And he's absolutely dazzling in the absymal Robin Hood, as well as the only watchable part of Mesmer.
2. James McAvoy
What he's been in: X-Men: First Class, Wanted, Arthur Christmas, Gnomeo and Juliet, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Children of Dune.
The worst thing he's done: Gnomeo and Juliet. Or maybe Narnia.
Why he always makes things better: Just watch him playing a silly pipe-playing faun in Narnia, with absolute total conviction and friendliness. This is the sort of role that a lot of actors stumble in. Also, McAvoy can play a total dipshit — in Wanted and X-Men, among others — and still make the audience relate to him. And he actually made Gnomeo a fun movie.
3. Callum Keith Rennie
What he's been in: Literally everything. Among other things: Memento, Alphas, Battlestar Galactica, Supernatural, Tin Man, Bionic Woman, Smallville, Painkiller Jane, Blade: Trinity, The Butterfly Effect, Tru Calling, Mutant X and eXistenZ.
The worst thing he's done: Wow. It's so hard to choose. Painkiller Jane, maybe? Or no — Bionic Woman.
Why he always makes things better: He's been in a lot of great things, and a lot of drek. And he's always just totally spicy and menacing and a little bit crazy. You can put this guy in anything, and he's always nuts. Just watch this clip of him playing a totally stock villain in Highlander: The Series, and he totally rocks it.
4. Michelle Rodriguez
What she's been in: Avatar, Battle: Los Angeles, Lost, SpongeBob Squarepants, Bloodrayne, Halo 2, Resident Evil, and a ton of other things.
The worst thing she's done: Probably Uwe Boll's Bloodrayne, in which she manages to bring a fun swagger to a truly awful movie.
Why she always makes things better: Rodriguez usually gets typecast as "the tough chick" who often gets killed off in the final reel. But she totally commits to these roles, and when she's in a mediocre film, she usually raises the tone. And she often manages to convey that she's a smart tough chick, not just a regular tough chick. Plus she was the most relatable character in Avatar, and one of the best things about Lost's second season.
5. David Warner
What he's been in: Tron, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Doctor Who: Dreamland, Hogfather, The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse, Time Bandits, Cyber Wars, Cortex, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Battle Force: Andromeda, The Little Unicorn, Planet of the Apes, The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, Buzz Lightyear of Star Command, Batman Beyond, The Hunger, Men In Black: The Series, Superman, The Outer Limits, Total Recall: The Series, Spider-Man, Perversions of Science, Freakazoid!, Beastmaster: The Eye of Braxus, Gargoyles, Iron Man, The Batman, Babylon 5, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, the Adventures of Brisco County Jr., Wild Palms, Captain Planet, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Twin Peaks, The Man With Two Brains, The Omen, and so much more.
The worst thing he's done: God, it's so hard to say. Probably Cyber Wars, which is a movie that tries really hard but fails. Or maybe the Tim Burton Planet of the Apes.
Why he always makes things better: Warner has played some of your favorite roles, and you may not even know it. He was Chancellor Gorkon in Star Trek VI. He was the Cardassian who tortured Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. He was Sark/Dillinger in Tron. He was Evil Genius in Time Bandits. He did the voice of Ra's Al-Ghul in several different DC animated TV shows. And so on. But he's also been in some truly dreadful things, and he's always highly watchable, because of that ringing voice and that, that... undertone of pure scorn that he puts into everything. Just watch the above video, appropriately called "David Warner Summons Cthulhu."
6. Edward James Olmos
What he's been in: Battlestar Galactica, Blade Runner, The Green Hornet, The Batman, Touched by An Angel, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Faerie Tale Theatre
The worst thing he's done: Quite possibly The Green Hornet.
Why he always makes things better: Just watch this snippet from Wolfen, a cheesy movie about killer Native American wolf spirits from 1981 — Olmos is the guy in plaid. He has the same dignity and fire in this role as he has as Admiral Adama and every other great part he's played.
7. Chiwetel Ejiofor
What he's been in: Serenity, Children of Men, Salt and 2012
The worst thing he's done: 2012.
Why he always makes things better: Ejiofor has only been in a handful of genre projects, compared to MVPs like Rennie and Warner, but he's always blown us away with his warmth — and how quickly it can turn sinister and weird. And you know, he has to play the "science advisor" (there should be about ten rows of quotes around that phrase) in 2012 and he makes it work somehow, while macking on Thandie Newton. (See clip, sadly dubbed.) Plus he goes toe-to-toe with the whole cast of Firefly and still manages to be one of the most memorable parts of Serenity.
8. Tilda Swinton
What she's been in: Orlando, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Teknolust, Constantine, Adaptation, Vanilla Sky, Possible Worlds and Conceiving Ada.
The worst thing she's done: Ooh. Probably Constantine. Or maybe Vanilla Sky.
Why she always makes things better: Unlike some of the other actors on this list, who have been in a ton of questionable projects, Swinton seems to pick and choose pretty carefully — and even when she's in a terrible movie, she manages to be playing the one weird, oddball role in it. She's this sort of beatific presence, even when she's playing a villain. She always finds fascinating ways to play with gender and identity, and to play strong characters without you even thinking she's playing a strong female character. She brings a little bit of "art movie" to everything she's in.
9. Sir Ian McKellen
What he's been in: Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, the X-Men movies, The Prisoner, The Golden Compass and Doogal.
The worst thing he's done: Probably X-Men: The Last Stand. Or maybe The Prisoner.
Why he always makes things better: He's got this sort of core of rage right under his cheery exterior, that comes out when he bellows "You shall not pass" or reveals what drives Magneto forward. And even when he's in the middle of a sodden mess of a story like X-Men 3, he still has that sardonic fire. And in The Prisoner, which wants so badly to be deep and clever, he's still kind of brilliant as Two.
10. Sigourney Weaver
What she's been in: She's the queen of science fiction, with roles including the Alien movies, Avatar, Ghostbusters, Paul, Vamps, Galaxy Quest, Wall-E, Be Kind Rewind, Futurama and Snow White: A Tale of Terror.
The worst thing she's done: Umm... maybe Avatar?
Why she always makes things better: She's just always one of the best things about any project she's in. Including Avatar, where she single-handedly makes a lot of the scenes on the human base fascinating just by bringing that extra spark to them. Her performance as Grace is one of the main reasons you believe in this slightly far-fetched setup and are able to get invested in Jake Sully's journey.
Thanks to Naamen, Claire and Annalee for brainstorming.