7 of the best movie mad scientists of all time
From Dr. Frankenstein to Doc Brown, step into the laboratories of these beloved, crazed geniuses.
When it comes to Hollywood history, few roles are as memorable or as much fun to play as the part of the passionate and twisted mad scientist. Whether its giving life to a dead creature or harnessing the power of 1.21 gigawatts of energy to send someone back in time, these slightly disturbed geniuses are often ready to sacrifice everything to achieve their goals.
Below are just a few of the most celebrated mad scientist characters in cinematic history.
Dr. Henry Frankenstein / 'Frankenstein'
While there have been plenty of adaptations of British author Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," including a recent modern take by Israeli producer Avi Lerner, it's the 1931 version starring actor Colin Clive that ranks as one of the best.
Clive, who plays the maniacal Dr. Victor Frankenstein, almost lost out on the role to another monster. Actor Bela Lugosi, fresh off his famous portrayal of the vampire Count Dracula, was eager to step into the white lab coat of Dr. Frankenstein next. British director James Whale, however, knew that he wanted Clive from the very beginning.
“I see Frankenstein as an intensely sane person, at times rather fanatical and in one or two scenes a little hysterical," he told Clive. "Frankenstein’s nerves are all to pieces… I know you are absolutely right for it."
The film, which features the still-popular clip of Clive screaming "It's ALIVE!", would lead to a 1935 sequel titled "The Bride of Frankenstein."
Dr. Hans Zarkov / 'Flash Gordon'
The 1980 space opera "Flash Gordon" is a celebrated cult classic for many reasons, including Israeli actor Chaim Topol's brilliant portrayal of the crazed scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov.
In the beginning of the film, Dr. Zarkov kidnaps Flash Gordon and journalist Dale Arden after they crash land into his laboratory. He then forces them to board a custom-made rocket to investigate what he believes is a plot to destroy the Earth. Yes, it sounds horribly campy, but Topol's performance in in the film is as perfect as Brian Blessed's magnificent beard.
In an interview, Sam Jones, who plays Flash, says that despite the film's campy dialogue and acting, it really was approached as a serious production.
"The film's very campy, very adventurous," he said. "We played it straight; we couldn't have played it any other way. When the crew watched the rushes and were laughing hysterically, Dino said, 'Why are you laughing?' And then they discovered they had a comedy, that it was camp. I've heard from the screenings that some people couldn't hear the words because of all the applause and laughter... but we did play it seriously."
Seth Brundle / 'The Fly'
Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg's 1986 horror film "The Fly" features a young Jeff Goldblum playing a brilliant, eccentric scientist named Dr. Seth Brundle. Plagued by extreme motion sickness his entire life, Dr. Brundle decides to devote his career to building a device capable of human teleportation. So as not to waste time on frivolous decisions, he even adopts one of Albert Einstein's rumored habits and purchases five identical sets of clothing.
While Brundle is eventually successful in perfecting teleportation, it comes with a price. During a test of the device on himself, a fly accidentally enters the chamber and is teleported along with Brundle. The two organisms are then merged, with Brundle slowly transforming into the fly and delving into madness over the next several weeks.
"I’m saying I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it," Brundle says in the film. "But now the dream is over and the insect is awake."
During filming, Goldblum reportedly kept a fly in a plastic bag in his trailer as a reminder of his character's final destination.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein / 'Young Frankenstein'
Instead of trying his hand at topping Colin Clive's performance, actor Gene Wilder came up with an even better idea: a comedy that would focus exclusively on the grandson of Dr. Victor Frankenstein. According to American comedic legend Mel Brooks, who directed the film, Wilder proposed the concept on the set of "Blazing Saddles."
"Gene Wilder and I were having a cup of coffee and he said, 'I have this idea that there could be another Frankenstein,'" Brooks recalled. "I said, "Not another! We've had the son of, the cousin of, the brother-in-law. We don't need another Frankenstein.' His idea was very simple: What if the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein wanted nothing to do with the family whatsoever. He was ashamed of those wackos. I said, 'That's funny.'"
While Wilder's character exhibited emotions ranging from extreme passion to mild insanity in an effort to bring his creature to life, the actor himself could barely keep a straight face on set. “He killed every take [with his laughter] and nothing was done about it!" actress Cloris Leachman said, adding that sometimes as many as 15 takes were needed before Wilder nailed the scene.
"Young Frankenstein" went on to become the third highest-grossing film of 1974, earning two Academy Award nominations for screenplay and sound. It was later turned into a successful Broadway musical in 2007.
Dr. Emmett Brown / 'Back to the Future'
Loosely inspired by physicist Albert Einstein and British conductor Leopold Stokowski, Dr. Emmett Brown from the "Back to the Future" franchise ranks as one of the most beloved "mad" film scientists of all time.
In the first film, released in 1985, Brown finally perfects the concept of time travel with a device called the flux capacitor. The man behind the character, American actor Christopher Lloyd, said in a recent interview that the role was always a very special one for him.
"As a kid growing up (and even now), there's something so magical to me about people who have the ability to look into the future, so to speak," he told MovieFone. "Steve Jobs, for example – he changed the world with his imagination and ambition. It always intrigues me, and that's who Doc Brown is; he changed the future, he discovered time travel in the film. It's the ultimate discovery."
Lloyd, who has reprised the role of the quirky Doc Brown no less than 12 times since the completion of the original trilogy, says that he's most proud of the impact the character has had on getting people to consider careers in the sciences. “Scientists, engineers, doctors. So many people have made career choices based on the way they were influenced early by the films," he said. "I think that’s great.”
Dr. Henry Wu / 'Jurassic World'
In both "Jurassic Park" and "Jurassic World," Dr. Henry Wu, played by American actor B.D. Wong, shows time and again why he is the modern-day equivalent of Dr. Frankenstein. A brilliant geneticist, Wu perfects the process of taking dinosaur DNA and filling in the gaps with the DNA of related extinct animals. Unfortunately, Wu's obsession with creating life ends up costing others their own. This is especially true in "Jurassic World" when he creates a Frankenstein-esque beast called the Indominus Rex from the DNA of no less than 10 different species.
"He’s completely turning a blind eye to all of the bad things that are going on," Wong said of his character's intentions. "I can’t imagine actually being that person, I don’t have that expertise – I’m not a brilliant mind. But I can justify that feeling of power and that the feeling of cracking the code of life is so intoxicating."
With Wong's character making it out of Jurassic World alive at the end of the film, it's clear that his days of playing a mad scientist will continue in the film's sequel.
“I think there’s a real story to be told here,” Colin Trevorrow, who co-wrote the sequel while also working on the script for "Star Wars: Episode IX, said in an interview, “and that’s all really sourced from [Michael] Crichton’s original ideas. The thing I love the most about what he introduced is this idea that a mistake made a long time ago just can’t be undone. The minute that they cloned a dinosaur, you can’t put that back in the box. And what could be the ultimate result of that?”
Lex Luthor / 'Batman v Superman'
While the DC Comics villain Lex Luthor has been portrayed several times on film, it was American actor Jesse Eisenberg's performance in "Batman v Superman" that truly captured the character's "mad scientist" side.
"In the comic books, [he] can appear campy or silly or just scary or something, Eisenberg said in an interview, "but what Chris Terrio, the writer of this script, did so wonderfully is to try to create a person who is psychologically authentic, somebody who is actually troubled, someone who is actually suffering, somebody who is insecure and rageful, and all these things that you are not used to seeing in a villain."
While Luthor's monstrous creation at the end of the film is ultimately defeated by Batman, Superman and the kickass superpowers of Wonder Woman, it's clear that we'll be seeing much more of his fiendish side in the upcoming "Justice League."
"I loved the character and it was the most fun I’ve ever had at playing a role, and most challenging, in a great way, and most rewarding," Eisenberg added. "I would love to play it for years."
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