The Reelist: Mad Scientists
Science is a dirty business. Although scientists do get to play with dangerous chemicals—or, in some cases, humans or animals!—and wear cool white coats, they get into some dicey situations. Take Darwin, for instance; in this week's Creation, a young Darwin (Paul Bettany) wrestles with his scientific theories and his religious beliefs, as well as those of his increasingly fed-up wife (Bettany's real-life partner, Jennifer Connelly). But while Darwin faced some very serious personal and professional obstacles while writing On the Origin of the Species and afterwards, he never accidentally turned himself into a fly, fought ghosts, or encountered any of the mishaps that these unfortunate scientists did. So light your Bunsen burner and read on.
Whether you prefer the 1958 original or the Cronenberg version from 1986 depends on your fondness for old-school chills versus modern body horror goo. Either one features an especially mad scientist (David Hedison as Andre Delambre and Jeff Goldblum as Seth Brundle, respectively) who accidentally gets his DNA mixed up with a regular housefly, much to the horror of his ladylove. Cronenberg particularly delights in the icky transformation of Seth into a giant man-fly, while the black-and-white version is a classier, creepier Vincent Price affair.
Liam Neeson boldly ventures into the world of sexology in this biopic of Alfred Kinsey. The first of his kind, Kinsey and his team of fellow researchers did hands-on research for their studies of human sexuality, beginning with Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. The movie flashes between Kinsey's life, a crucial interview with him about his own history, and the research he conducts with his team—sometimes rather literally. Although Kinsey wasn't a mad scientist by today's standards, some people of his era thought his studies were subversive, to say the least. Kinsey racked up plenty of awards for its great cast, which included Laura Linney, Peter Sarsgaard, Chris O'Donnell, Timothy Hutton, and John Lithgow.
Based on the novel by Paddy Chayefsky, who also wrote the screenplay, Ken Russell's Altered States uses the research of noted doctor and psychoanalyst John C. Lilly's experiments with hallucinogens and isolation tanks as a jumping-off point for this sci-fi freakout. William Hurt makes his debut as a scientist at Harvard whose experiments push him to the edge both mentally and physically. Things get super-freaky when he begins to occasionally regress to, say, a primitive man. Yikes!
Technically, the Ghostbusters are parapsychologists, but they have a lot of nifty scientific gadgets to help them track down otherworldly critters and send them back to, well, wherever they came from. Dr. Egon Spengler (co-writer Harold Ramis) is the nerdiest of the trio, which includes Bill Murray at Dr. Peter Venkman and Dan Aykroyd as Dr. Raymond Stantz. Of the three, Spengler's the smartest, even if he doesn't quite know how to express his quantum science psycho-babble to the outside world. Venkman's the funniest, though, telling one of his experiment subjects, "Back off, man. I'm a scientist."
What happens when dad is a bumbling scientist with a home lab and inquisitive kids? Well, the title explains it all. Wayne Szalinski (Rick Moranis) shrinks not only his own two children but the neighbors' two kids too, and accidentally dumps them out with the trash. The hazards of being shrunk down to 1/4th of your normal size include water sprinklers, lawn mowers, a scorpion, and a bowl of Cheerios. Eventually, Wayne manages to get everyone back to their normal sizes, but he doesn't learn his lesson very well and continues to futz around with his home lab, which led to two more Honey… movies.
The opposite of a wacky scientist flick, this timeless classic stars Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Dick York, and Gene Kelly in a fictionalized account of the Scopes "Monkey" Trial in 1925, in which a young teacher was tried in court for teaching Darwinism to his students. The movie was nominated for four Oscars, including a Best Actor nod for Tracy, who played defending lawyer Henry Drummond, based on the legendary Clarence Darrow. It's worth revisiting.
Take a look at this Tribeca Q&A panel about Inherit the Wind here.
Tribeca asks: What other mad scientists translated to good experiments on film?