Overall, scientists in movies have been given a bad rap and they are invariably depicted as insane and power hungry. The audience has often laughed at the science used in the plots but some of these ideas predicted future scientific developments. Truth is always stranger than fiction. Many films tap into our fears and our anxiety about what scientists are up to. The wacky scientist is also a suitable subject for comedy. The following movies are significant in their individual ways and feature cultural icons.
10. Dr. Evil
Played by Mike Myers in the Austin Powers Trilogy
Dr. Evil is a parody of the over the top villain, intent on world domination and wealth, echoing the villains in Bond movies. He forges intricate plans involving science to achieve his goal. He certainly thinks big. One of his schemes is to make all the world’s volcanoes erupt simultaneously. Another is to fire a laser ‘death star’ at Washington DC. He is cryogenically frozen in 1967 and revived thirty years later.
In an effort to offset global temperatures, some scientists in the U.S. have called for research into simulating volcanic eruptions. Artificially produced particles in the atmosphere would deflect heat from the sun and reduce the effects of climate change. The U.S. military has carried out a lot of research on laser weapons, successfully developing a laser that destroyed mortars and rockets in tests. As for cryogenic freezing, some people have paid out a lot of cash for the privilege but the technology to revive them doesn’t exist yet and most scientists are pessimistic about it.
9. Dr. Caligari
Played by Werner Krauss in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
The plot of this silent slice of German Expressionism is told in flashback. Set in a mountain village, Dr. Caligari and his sleepwalking assistant, Cesare, are a sinister freak show in a traveling carnival. They become suspects in a series of murders. The doctor uses mind control over Cesare, commanding him to do his evil deeds, but there is a twist…
Scholars disagree about evidence of mind control but many organizations have experimented with it for political or military ends. So-called brainwashing techniques have been of interest to the CIA and the recent film, The Men Who Stare at Goats, was inspired by real life experiments in the US Army in their bid to train soldiers in paranormal skills. Some people suspect religious cults of using mind control to recruit and keep followers. Stage hypnotists use a form of mind control in their acts.
As for somnambulism, there have been cases of violence involving sleepwalkers, including homicide. Many defendants have been acquitted because the court ruled they were not to be held responsible for their actions.
8. C.A. Rotwang
Played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge in Metropolis (1927)
In a futuristic city, society is divided into ‘thinkers’ who live in luxury and ‘workers’ who are no more than slaves, laboring in underground ‘machine halls’. An inventor named Rotwang invents a robot shaped like a woman, called Maria. He fools men into thinking it is real when it performs a dance and drives them wild with desire. The sets greatly influenced future films involving laboratories and Rotwang was used as a template for many ‘mad’ scientists.
The science of robotics has made advances in the fields of manufacturing, space exploration, and surgery. A robot called Elektro was one of the highlight exhibitions at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Built to resemble a male human, it could walk, speak, and blow up balloons. Since then, robots have become increasingly sophisticated, leading to amazing developments in prosthetic body parts. There are robots that can walk up stairs, pick up small objects, and show facial expressions. One robot called Topio can play ping pong. Current research involves the attempt to give robots the appearance of a personality.
7. ‘Doc’ Emmett Brown
Played by Christopher Lloyd in the Back to the Future Trilogy
Back to the Future (1985)
Back to the Future Part II (1989)
Back to the Future Part III (1990)
Time travel is a recurring theme in science fiction and it’s another way of asking if we should tamper with the natural order of things. The Doc is a lovable, absent minded kind of mad scientist, harking back to the stereotypical wild-haired genius with a shock of hair. He adapts his DeLorean car into a time machine and involves Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) in his madcap adventures with elaborate plots involving the timeline. The Doc shows his emotional side when he falls in love in the final installment.
Some scientists entertain the theory of time travel but many, including Stephen Hawking, think that the laws of physics prevent it. To even begin to think about time travel, you have to understand Einstein’s theories on relativity, which try to explain space and time. This leads us to the ‘Grandfather Paradox’, the hypothesis that explores the scenario of someone going back in time and killing his/her grandfather (before Grandpa has met Grandma). You can see where this is going. The time traveler would never be born and would not go back in time to kill said grandfather. This is just the kind of paradox that occupies the mind of Marty McFly.
6. Dr. Frank N. Furter
Played by Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Devoted fans know all the words to this cult musical. A hapless, straight couple have car trouble and seek help at an old castle. They stumble into Dr. Frank N. Furter and his guests at the wildest party ever. The science mirrors that of Dr. Frankenstein but with a comic twist. Frank N. Furter creates life in the form of a muscular pin up called Rocky Horror. He proudly sings in the song Sweet Transvestite, “I’ve been making a man with blonde hair and a tan”.
See Dr. Frankenstein.
5. Dr. Strangelove
Played by Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Peter Sellers had lots of fun with this role, echoing Rotwang in Metropolis in his uncontrollable frenzy as the disturbed Strangelove. He is an ex-Nazi weapons expert who now acts as advisor to the U.S. President in the War Room. The movie wittily parodies the idea of MAD (mutually assured destruction) in the atom bomb age. The Soviet Union has invented a device that will automatically destroy Earth if nuclear weapons are sent to Soviet targets. It’s called the Doomsday Machine. Surely, this couldn’t come true?
This very ‘Doomsday Machine’ was proposed in the 1950s by an American think tank. Envisaged along the lines of the movie plot, hydrogen bombs would destroy the world, linked to a computer command. Furthermore, the Soviet Union succeeded in inventing a Doomsday Machine, known as the Perimetr in 1984. We can, infact, destroy our world, many times over.
4. Dr. Moreau
Charles Laughton in Island of Lost Souls (1933)
Burt Lancaster in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977)
Marlon Brando in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)
Based on a novel by H.G.Wells, the movies tell the story of a scientist’s desire to create his own race of human and animal hybrids. Moreau’s experiments on animals are cruel and he succeeeds in making animal hybrids with human DNA. It’s another morality tale about tampering with nature.
In 1998, a human hybrid clone was created from a cell in a man’s leg and a cow’s egg. After twelve days, it was destroyed. Transplanting organs from one species to another is known as xenotransplantation and humans have received pig heart valves successfully. Furthermore, researchers have created pigs with human genes. The goal is to have a breeding program to supply transplants to humans for livers, hearts, and kidneys. Some people are ethically opposed to xenotransplantion.
3. The Fly
David Hedison as Scientist Andre Delambre in The Fly (1958)
Brett Halsey as Scientist Philippe Delambre in Return of the Fly (1959)
George Baker as Scientist Martin Delambre in Curse of the Fly (1965)
Jeff Goldblum as Scientist Seth Brundle in The Fly (1986)
Eric Stolz as Scientist Martin Brundle in The Fly II (1989)
Various movie adaptations came from the original short story by George Langelaan, first published in an issue of Playboy in 1957. Teleportation is another holy grail for scientists. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenbury predicted it would be a routine way of life one day, but the instant transfer of matter proves problematic for the protagonists in The Fly films. The scientists start off as rational beings but getting your DNA mixed up with a fly is bound to fry your brain. A note to would be teleporters: make sure there isn’t a fly in there with you at the moment of teleportation, unless you really like to regurgitate your meals.
The consensus amongst scientists is that teleportation is probably impossible; the only hope being that a wormhole (a shortcut through time and space) is discovered. This would enable matter to travel at the speed of light. There have been small successes, however. A team of physicists at the California Institute of Technology were successful in teleporting a photon (a particle of energy that carries light) in 1998. It travelled through 3.28 feet of coaxial cable and made a replica. The original photon did not survive. More recently, teams at the Australian National University and at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen in Denmark have teleported a laser beam. It’s all a long way from Captain Kirk asking Scotty to beam him up.
2. Dr. Jekyll
Played by Various Actors in Several Movies, Most Notably:
John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
Frederick March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Spencer Tracy in Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1941)
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an1886 novella by Robert Louis Stevenson. The author was interested in the dual nature of human beings. In an effort to understand evil, the kindly Dr. Jekyll drinks a potion and transforms into Mr. Hyde, a nasty man of violence. The special effects were quite a challenge in the early movies.
Clearly, drugs change one’s mood temporarily but studies have also shown that some drugs can change one’s personality on a permanent basis. Some people claim that LSD and mescaline have altered their personality and reports state cases of patients suffering side effects from psychiatric drugs, leading to violence and suicide.
1. Dr. Frankenstein
Played by Various Actors in Several Movies, Most Notably:
Colin Clive in Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Basil Rathbone in Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Cedric Hardwicke in the Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
Peter Cushing in seven movies (1957 to 1974)
Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein (1974)
The movie adaptations depict Dr. Frankenstein as a mad scientist, but the Frankenstein story first appeared in a gothic novel by Mary Shelley in 1818. The doctor uses electricity to give life to the Monster, put together from various corpses. Ever since, people have asked if we could create a human being in that way. Should we interfere with nature? Should we play God? It always ends in tears for the Monster.
Our real life attempts at making life have been confined to cloning. The first cloned mammal, a mouse, made an appearance in 1986 and Dolly the Sheep became famous ten years later as the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell. It’s hoped that this research will help to cure disease in humans and it may be possible to harvest organs from clones. Many people are morally opposed to human cloning and some countries have signed a ban. There are scientists who say it it will inevitably happen. Five mature, cloned human embryos were created from adult skin cell DNA in 2008. They were destroyed. We don’t know if they would have deveolped successfully.