As seen on screen: top 10 technology villains and heroes
Image credit: Eyevine, Rex Features, Landmark Media, Allstar, Capital Pictures
As an array of hero and villain films hit cinemas this year, including the much-anticipated (but unfortunately delayed) James Bond, we look at film and TV’s all-time best baddies and goodies.
Engineering and technology have generally got a bum rap from the movies and TV, but not always. Here are the best exceptions. A couple of points. No superendowed aliens (so The Doctor misses this cut) and no machines (so that’s HAL and Skynet out, too) – although there is arguably one cheat. You know you won’t agree. You’re not meant to. And we’ve got a few characters on here who are hopefully unexpected. So, control-rod actuators standing by… and here we go.
1. Julius No, (Dr No)
Private island with underground lair – check. Physical deformity – check. Garrulous megalomania – check. Julius No (pictured above) is the original Bond movie (if not book) villain and set the template. But one other thing the movie changed from Ian Fleming’s original was to make the bad doctor a nuclear physicist rather than a man of medicine.
Hollywood had been keen on mad scientists for several decades (with Frankenstein in mid-comeback as Bond arrived, thanks to Hammer). But Canadian actor Joseph Wiseman and director Terence Young introduced a polished and elegant brand of evil that would continue to be the hallmark of Wiseman’s successors. The film makes us wait a long time to meet him, but when this doctor arrives he does not disappoint.
Today, having a Canadian actor in ‘Asian face’ play this kind of role would rightly spark huge controversy. But Wiseman’s ongoing influence is unarguable (indeed, some Bond fans believe that Dr No is set for an imminent Blofeld-style return – ‘No’… Time To Die – geddit? Yup, that’s tortured).
2. Tony Stark (Iron Man etc)
What is the world’s biggest current superhero doing in the villain category?
Brilliant engineer he may be, Tony Stark nevertheless has many villainous qualities. He is an arms dealer with access to apparently limitless resources. He is largely in it for the money, even bragging that he has “privatised world peace”. And he certainly appears to think an awful lot of himself. He sounds a lot like Blofeld.
Thanks to Robert Downey Jr’s terrific performance, what we get across the Iron Man and Avengers movies is therefore something of a redemption arc (no pun intended). Yet even as Stark does more and more good, he keeps messing up. He co-creates Ultron. He has a far-from-progressive view on civil liberties. And he sometimes gets roaringly drunk. Redemption is achieved but the whole series would not be anywhere near as interesting, if we did not finally see Stark melt the shard of ice in his heart.
3. Davros (Doctor Who)
OK, we did say ‘no aliens’ and Davros is the Kaled creator of the Daleks and putative purveyor of “unlimited rice pudding”. But let’s be honest. His first appearance in the classic Genesis of the Daleks is central to a clear allegory about very human Nazism (ramming home a theme that had been there in the very first of Terry Nation’s stories about genocidal pepperpots). Take the evils practiced in the real world by the likes of Josef Mengele, add in wider (and sadly once more current) theories about eugenics and racial superiority, put them in a hideously deformed body, and you have perhaps one of the darkest characters every created for a cautionary children’s tale. Grimmer than Grimm.
While Davros has his fair share of shouty ‘mad scientist’ moments, he is at his most disturbing in the quieter ones when he outlines his perverse philosophy, a tribute to the actors who get that across despite the prosthetics. Then, he is strangely pitiable when the Law of Unintended Consequences leads his creations to lock him away, partly out of fear and partly disdain. That, though, is when you really need to watch out.
4. Dr Ford (Westworld)
What exactly is Dr Ford’s masterplan in Jonathan Nolan’s Westworld remake? What does he want as a future for the synthetic theme-park humans he created now and the real ones they are now mingling with?
It looked like we would never get an answer after he effectively committed suicide-by-android in Season One. However, Ford returned in dream-form for Season Two, still teasing out the technological and metaphysical riddles at the heart of this smart meditation on the translation of AI into physical form.
Season Three arrives in March without Anthony Hopkins on the official cast list as Ford – but then neither did Season Two, so fans are convinced he will be back. You do hope so. If Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter was one of the most gothic pieces of villainy in history, his Ford is the opposite. It is hard to think of this bad guy losing his temper. Instead, he is uncannily calm and even given to moments that creep you out because he sounds like he might be right. Yet he remains a mass murderer.
5. Henry Frankenstein (Frankenstein/The Bride of Frankenstein)
Ah yes. The Law of Unintended Consequences. As portrayed in James Whale’s classic 1931 adaptation, Colin Clive’s Henry (not, in this version, Victor) Frankenstein today feels hammy. Mel Brooks was parodying the characterisation back in the 1970s in Young Frankenstein. But thematically the film and Clive’s performance offer a powerful portrayal of obsession leading to disaster and, unlike many of the film and TV ‘mad scientists’ that followed, it raises questions of control rather than simple evil (Boris Karloff’s Monster is also an ambiguously sympathetic character).
The sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, takes the themes even further, as the Monster demands – and is made – a mate. Henry, for his part, is shown to then have even less mastery over what he has unleashed as he is further coerced into fulfilling that wish by the nefarious Doctor Pretorius.
Frankenstein and his creation have been revisited many times since, but Whale’s masterpieces remain the seminal film portrayal of unwitting villainy largely because they properly engage with the tensions between innovation and its consequences. It gives us both a great horror story while exploring an intellectually terrifying “new world of gods and monsters”.
6. Dr Otto Octavius (Spider-Man 2, Alfred Molina)
The toughest choice of all. Sophisticated techno villainy in the best-ever comic-book adaptation (don’t argue, just accept it).
7. Raoul Silva (Skyfall, Javier Bardem)
“Just point and click.”
8. Syndrome (The Incredibles, Jason Lee)
When heroes create their own nemeses, best not to pick on a scientist. The best Bond villain outside of Bond.
9. The Scarecrow (Batman Begins, Cillian Murphy)
Could even give Tommy Shelby the fear.
10. Mark Zuckerberg (The Social Network, Jesse Eisenberg)
“You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.” Well, that slogan’s out of date.
1. Robert Capa (Sunshine)
In sci-fi, actor Cillian Murphy is better known for villainy thanks to such performances as The Scarecrow in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films and a cheeky cameo at the end of Tron: Legacy as the son of the original film’s baddie. But among those ‘in the know’ – including no less a figure than Brian Cox – his quiet, humane and ultimately heroic performance in Danny Boyle’s 'Sunshine' set a new high for how scientists are portrayed on film.
The sun is dying, and Murphy’s Capa is the physicist who has developed a device to reignite it. The film charts the physical and psychological impact of the journey. Notwithstanding an excellent ensemble cast, Capa moves ever closer to Sunshine’s heart as the man who knows what needs to happen and in his response to events around him. Murphy’s performance goes about as far away from ‘the white coat’ as it is possible to get. He is, as Cox said, “brilliant”.
2. Q (James Bond)
“Now pay attention, 007.” In following the much-loved Desmond Llewelyn (after a brief John Cleese detour), Ben Whishaw faced almost as big a challenge as Daniel Craig in the most recent franchise reboot. He wisely chose to take the character in a very different direction.
Llewelyn was splendid as a combination of old-school boffin and civil servant with pure Whitehall dress sense. Whishaw is great as essentially a harassed university professor who has not refreshed his wardrobe since his undergraduate days (though this being Bond, the duffle is designer). Another big difference is that Skyfall and particularly Spectre placed Q close to the action. Llewelyn got that chance only once, though his performance in Licence to Kill suggested it should have happened more often. Still, we now have a Q who provides more than just a witty gadget-porn scene for us geeks to reflect our digital times. Yet he remains as satisfyingly flustered as ever.
3. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson (Hidden Figures)
The only real-life entry on the heroes list, the trio of black, female NASA mathematicians and engineers portrayed by Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe in Hidden Figures illustrates the problems women had – and sadly still have - in being recognised for their roles in advancing technology.
Science biopics are also notoriously hard to pull off, yet thanks to their performances and real care taken to both explaining their work and tell an engaging story, Hidden Figures works. Some licence was taken but both the author of the women’s original history and other NASA historians credit the film with generally sticking to the facts and only inventing scenes that still illustrated how things were at the beginning of the Space Race in the early Sixties.
4. Elliot Alderson (Mr Robot)
Bond’s latest villain, Rami Malek, broke out in the television drama Mr Robot. It finished its run only late last year. And since its four seasons are still in ‘live’ streaming, we will avoid spoilers.
It is fair to say that Elliot sees himself as a vigilante ‘white hat’ hacker. Yet, in character, he also suffers from depression, paranoia and social disconnection even as he takes down plenty of nasties. Meanwhile, evil techno-mavens are up to evil techno-things. But, for now, that’s your lot.
Otherwise, Malek’s superb and literally multi-faceted performance (far better than his Oscar-winning Freddie Mercury), and creator Sam Esmail’s persistence in to getting the hacking details right seed an extraordinary piece of contemporary world-building. There is also, particularly at the end, real emotional depth. If you have yet to stream the show, you are in for a treat.
5. Harold Finch (Person of Interest)
As Ben Linus in Lost, actor Michael Emerson unsurprisingly got a reputation for doing “weird”. When news broke that he had been cast in Jonathan Nolan’s US surveillance and AI series Person of Interest, many assumed that he would be playing a bad guy. Not quite.
As the co-inventor of an all-seeing AI, Harold Finch is a little off-centre, but he is instead trying to tame what he has unleashed and educate the system in humanity while working with action star Jim Caviezel to avert the weekly crimes his AI predicts.
It’s a superb performance because not only does Finch represent Silicon Valley finally getting a conscience, he also has to carry all the tech-talk and the philosophical explorations that make the series so much more than a simple procedural. Emerson conquers a hugely challenging task with consistent skill, week after week after week. Mr Finch has important things to say and he keeps saying them clearly and dramatically for five riveting seasons.
6. Peter Parker (Spider-Man, Tom Holland)
Massive points for loving science, but then you become a photographer. Come on, lad.
7. Kevin Flynn (Tron and Tron: Legacy, Jeff Bridges)
The coolest programmer in the movies ever, dude.
8. Dr Charles Forbin (Colossus: The Forbin Project, Eric Braeden)
You haven’t seen it. You should. The great, unknown supercomputer movie.
9. Lucius Fox (The Dark Knight trilogy, Morgan Freeman)
Armorer, Wayne Enterprises R&D chief and a key moral centre taming Batman’s vigilantism.
10. Professor Squawkencluck (Danger Mouse, Shauna MacDonald)
The one almost-sane voice in a male-dominated ocean of utter chaos.
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