Tragic deaths, and the emotional devastation that they deliver, have been a part of movies since film began. There are deaths that we expect to sadden us: a family member succumbs to cancer, a loyal friend makes the ultimate sacrifice, a beloved pet is put down. Then there are the deaths, both real and figurative, that have no business tugging our heartstrings, but somehow manage to tear us up anyway.
Wilson — Cast Away
When Fed Ex engineer Chuck Noland washes up on a deserted island following a plane crash, he survives the crushing loneliness by befriending a volleyball, on whom he makes a face using a bloody handprint. “Wilson” becomes Chuck’s companion, confidante, and, occasionally, his conscience. When Chuck builds a raft to escape the island, he doesn’t even consider leaving Wilson behind.
Chuck falls asleep on the raft, and when he wakes up, he sees Wilson floating beyond his reach. Desperate to save his friend, Chuck swims after him, but is forced to abandon the rescue in order to keep his raft. Helpless to prevent it, Chuck — along with the audience – watches in despair as Wilson floats out to sea. Everyone involved in this movie will live forever in the annals of great filmmaking for causing us all to tear up over a lost volleyball.
Bing Bong — Inside Out
Inside preteen Riley’s mind, her emotions, Joy and Sadness, struggle to return to headquarters. On the way, they meet a strange but energetic dolphin-elephant-cat hybrid made of cotton candy named Bing Bong, Riley’s former imaginary friend. Eager to be useful again, Bing Bong offers to help them get back to where they belong, and perhaps, to return to Riley’s active memory himself. However, due to his childlike nature, his efforts to assist tend to hinder as much as help.
As Riley’s Personality Islands crumble around them, Joy and Bing Bong — who had reached out to grab Joy — fall into the Memory Dump and risk fading from existence. They attempt to escape on Bing Bong’s wagon, but each attempt to fly out falls short. Jumping out of the wagon on the last jump, he sacrifices himself to save Joy, so Joy can save Riley. As he fades away, he calls out to Joy, saying “Take her to the moon for me. Okay?”
The Brachiosaurus — Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
As Isla Nublar‘s volcano erupts sending lava and ash across the island, Dinosaur Protection Group operatives Claire Dearing, Owen Grady, and Franklin Webb race to avoid the destruction. They sneak onboard the Arcadia just as it leaves the dock, and just before the volcanic Armageddon overtakes the island. As the ship leaves Isla Nublar behind, they watch a lone brachiosaurus race to the edge of the pier and call out helplessly as the flames and smoke consume her.
It’s hard watching this poor creature cry and reach out for a life-saving hand that will never come. But you know what, a lot of creatures perished on that island and an entire ecosystem disappeared. This one particular dinosaur shouldn’t — wait, what? It’s the same brachiosaurus from the first film? The one reaching up to eat the leaves? The very first dinosaur we ever see? Aw, man.
Yondu — Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
We first meet Yondu leading the Ravagers, a terrifying band of space pirates with which Peter Quill spent a fearful childhood. Yondu spends the first film alternating between chasing Peter — whom he’d kidnapped and terrified as a child — and threatening to kill him. He even reveals he kept young Peter from his father. No one would shed a tear at his demise.
In Vol. 2, we find out that Yondu refused to give Peter to his father to save him from a terrible fate. He admits that though he remained distant and chose not to show affection, he thought of Peter as his own son. His love for Peter costs Yondu his ship and the lives of his crew. The long-overdue father-son reconciliation comes just before Yondu sacrifices himself to save Peter’s life, and we discover — too late — how much of a hero he really is.
Ellie — Up
Before Carl Frederickson flew his balloon-propelled house to Venezuela, he was a young boy who dreamed of adventure. He meets Ellie, and she instantly captivates him. She shows him her Adventure Book and makes Carl promise to go with her to Paradise Falls one day. They become best friends and eventually, husband and wife. In a devastating wordless montage, dreams of adventure give way to the necessities and heartbreaks of adulthood until old age creeps up on them.
Carl finally decides they’re going to Paradise Falls, but it’s too late, as illness takes Ellie away, and he’s left alone. It’s not surprising that the death of a beloved wife and childhood sweetheart would be sad. What is unexpected is that a movie about a grumpy old man flying a balloon house could rip our hearts out in the first ten minutes. But then, it is Pixar, so we should have seen it coming.
HAL 9000 — 2001: A Space Odyssey
All is well aboard Discovery 1 until its AI operating system, Hal 9000, decides that the only way to successfully carry out his mission is to kill the crew. Suspicious of HAL’s strange behavior, crewmen Dave Bowman and Frank Poole discuss deactivating HAL. HAL strikes first, but Bowman survives. He navigates HAL’s defenses and begins the process of shutting HAL down.
Helpless to prevent his deactivation, HAL pleads for mercy, but Dave continues undeterred. Hal expresses fear as he realizes the end is near, “My mind is going; I can feel it.” Although he murdered the crew and needed to be stopped, he wasn’t evil. He was simply a faithful servant who, in the end, had gone a little mad. Imagine Old Yeller if the dog sang “Daisy Bell” while Travis loaded the gun.