Playing God

Mad Scientists in the Movies

Rachel Wayne
Jun 15, 2020 · 5 min read

Mad scientists have been a go-to trope in science fiction movies for years. However, as science has become more visible in the public eye, mad scientist characters have shifted from take-over-the-world types to misguided scientists who attain power beyond their control as they play God. Let’s take a look at some of the most morally questionable, and occasionally sympathetic, mad scientists.

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Madness = crazy hair, sometimes.

The original mad scientist has had his fair share of cinematic portrayals, but the most memorable is probably Gene Wilder’s in Young Frankenstein. Wilder’s manic energy and dry wit give him a slightly deranged personality even when he’s being the voice of reason. In this sly parody of Frankenstein movie tropes, Wilder’s scientist character resists the call of madness — for a while, until he finally becomes obsessed with playing God and utters those famous words: “It’s alive!”

While messing with time may not be playing God, it runs a close second, and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) is more than happy to do it. Never one to turn down an adventure, this Einsteinian hero quips and blasts his way through time — taking poor Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) with him. Doc Brown is adorably quirky, even if some of these methods are questionable. (Stealing plutonium from terrorists? Yikes.)

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Sarah Polley gives a stirring performance as a mad scientist-turned-oppressive-mother.

Elsa (Sarah Polley) is a geneticist who decides to take her gene-splicing projects to the next level by inserting her own DNA into a human–animal hybrid. The resulting creature is terrifying and gorgeous — and a femme fatale for the ages. Splice delightfully plays with tropes surrounding motherhood and genetic engineering as Elsa struggles to raise a monster. Elsa’s partner Clive (Adrien Brody) stands as the voice of reason, pleading with Elsa to consider the moral consequences. Eventually, even he succumbs to emotion. Splice is a cautionary tale about genetic engineering gone wrong, but it’s also a thoughtful — if dark — treatise on ethics, sexuality, and parenthood.

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Dr. Wu doing mad-scientist things.

Few of the original Jurassic Park cast returned to Jurassic World, but Dr. Wu (B.D. Wong) was a notable inclusion — and understandable, as the newer films placed an even heavier emphasis on the ethics of genetic engineering. The Dr. Wu portrayed in Jurassic World is much closer to his appearance in the original novel. He fancies himself a genius creator, able to splice together DNA to resurrect dinosaurs. His arrogance and opportunism lead him to make questionable choices that lead to the creatures’ adaptability. In Jurassic World, he’s shown to be a weapons designer, in effect, as he creates monstrous dinosaurs for the highest bidder. As Ian Malcolm famously said, he was “so preoccupied with whether [he] ‘could,’ [he] didn’t stop to think if they ‘should.’”

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That operating room does not look to be up to laboratory standards.

Nothing quite says playing God like cooking up human–animal hybrids in a “House of Pain,” which is what Dr. Moreau does in his island laboratory. Based on H.G. Wells’ novel, several film adaptations, from the well-regarded 1933 movie to the 1996 Razzie Award winner, have explored this mad science situation. In all adaptations, Dr. Moreau is cruel and maniacal. His experiments reflect the ambition that he prioritizes over scientific inquiry: he wants to create humans for no reason other than to see if he can do it. In typical Wellsian fashion, the story is an exploration of our animal nature, but that doesn’t make Dr. Moreau any less mad.

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Neil Patrick Harris delivers manic energy as a jealous mad scientist.

While Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion) skates by on vaguely impressive heroics and an adoring fan base, his wannabe nemesis Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris) is ranting on his vlog and aspiring to join the Evil League of Evil. That’s the comical premise of Joss Whedon’s parody of supervillain tropes, but in under 45 minutes, Dr. Horrible evolves into a true mad scientist bent on world domination. The reason? His crush Penny (Felicia Day) has started dating Captain Hammer. I’d say that deciding to take over the planet because you were friendzoned is pretty mad.

These characters are often too smart for their own good (or the world’s), yet “mad” in that they plow through their experiments and inventions with zero consideration for the consequences. In fact, what they’re doing is arguably not science. Good science makes no presumptions of playing God or attaining personal power. Good scientists proceed with the scientific method rather than skewing their work toward their desired result. That arrogance is shown in their downfall.

Still, we love these stories of “mad scientists” because they tap into our fear of our own power. If we could truly play God, what could we achieve? Would we use it for the right purposes? Or would we be overwhelmed by the power? After all, as Norman Bates said, “We all go a little mad sometimes.”

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