As Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, Oscar nominee Eddie Redmayne explores the mysteries of science. As Balem Abrasax in Jupiter Ascending, Redmayne is a mystery of science—an alien aristocrat determined to harvest Earthlings for a youth serum, if he can defeat lowly janitor Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), who has otherworldy genes, and space warrior Caine Wise (Channing Tatum).
Jupiter Ascending gives Redmayne an opportunity to join an aristocracy, that of actors who scored triumphs playing bad guys (and bad girls) in science fiction movies. As the film is written, directed, and co-produced by the Wachowskis, who created The Matrix trilogy, Redmayne has a leg up—Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), the memorable renegade computer program that targeted Neo (Keanu Reeves) and his allies, is their creation as well. Will Redmayne join our hall of infamy? Take a look at our favorite picks of sci-fi villains.
1971 was a most violent year for cinema—those out for blood included Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs, and Gene Hackman in the Oscar-winning The French Connection. The wickedest turn came from Malcolm McDowell, as the leader of the delinquent “droogs” in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange. Dedicated to “ultra-violence,” Alex and his gang terrorize Britain in the near future, in a crime spree that culminates in rape and murder. Captured by the authorities, Alex undergoes a brutal form of aversion therapy, as the film raises potent questions about sociopathic behavior, justice, punishment, and free will. Kubrick called Alex “the personification of evil” and McDowell embodies that with scary, seductive showmanship.
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is set on the rain-slicked, film noir-styled streets of Los Angeles in November 2019, where hovercraft ferry passengers in the polluted skies and humanoids live among us. Well, we have four years to get there. But we’ll always thrill to the formidable Rutger Hauer as Roy, the leader of a band of manufactured “replicants” who return to Earth to extend their lifespans—which means shortening the lives of those who oppose them. Targeting them is “blade runner” Harrison Ford, who in the film’s unexpectedly poignant climax gets schooled in humanity by his prey. “All those moments will be lost in time…like tears in the rain,” says Batty, a monster redeemed, in a line improvised by Hauer.
Fifteen years after “Space Seed,” an episode of Star Trek, Ricardo Montalban’s genetically enhanced supervillain was transported to the big screen for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Swearing vengeance upon Captain Kirk (William Shatner) for marooning his people and the subsequent death of his wife, Khan (played with panache by the Fantasy Island star) boldly goes where no Star Trek villain had gone, and is responsible for the death of Spock. Leonard Nimoy did of course return to the film series—and, in what was a closely guarded secret before the 2013 reboot Star Trek Into Darkness was released, so did Khan, played, less iconically, by Redmayne’s Oscar competitor Benedict Cumberbatch.
Ming the Merciless
Closely identified with the work of Ingmar Bergman, Max von Sydow, a two-time Oscar nominee, took breaks from all that Swedish angst to appear in Hollywood films. He played Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), the title role in The Exorcist (1973), and the nemesis of Flash Gordon in the 1980 movie of the hero’s intergalactic adventures on the planet Mongo. Relishing the opportunity to go rogue, von Sydow, as the tyrannical Ming, orders the destruction of Earth, then attends to pressing domestic concerns. In one of the many camp touches that add to the film’s cult appeal, Ming kills a disloyal prince with his own sword, which drips with—blue blood.
Clad in his Magnificent Seven cowboy outfit, Oscar winner Yul Brynner set a standard for android misbehavior in Westworld (1973), a concept that HBO is revisiting. But Arnold Schwarzenegger, hard to cast in standard hero roles early in his career, shattered the mold in James Cameron’s 1984 classic, embodying a terrifying vision of the future when the writer-director decided to have him play the villainous man-machine instead of the human protagonist. It was an inspired choice—and Cameron went one better by reassembling The Terminator as the good guy in the 1991 sequel, pitted against a shape-shifting enemy. After a third round in 2003, the star shape-shifted as the “governator” of California until 2011, and at age 67 returns to his signature role in Terminator Genisys this summer.
English bodybuilder and actor David Prowse supplied his body in George Lucas’s original Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983); Sebastian Shaw his face in a crucial scene in Return of the Jedi (1983); and two actors, Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen, played Anakin Skywalker, the Vader to be, in the prequels (1999-2005). What transfixed moviegoers and made Vader a villain for the ages, however, was the distinctive voice of James Earl Jones, resonating from within that forbidding costuming. Jones considered himself “just special effects” and initially went uncredited for the work, which soon entered into movie lore (“No, I am your father”). U.S. vice president Dick Cheney referred to himself as the “Darth Vader of the [Bush] administration,” just one way the character has seeped into the public consciousness.
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is the foundation of science fiction movies, and at its center is “the robot Maria,” the transformed version of the film’s heroine, who leads the workers of her colossal city astray. Generations later audiences were blindsided by Scarlett Johansson, an alien fighter in The Avengers movies, as an extraterrestrial in the chilling Under the Skin (2014). Given no character name, the actress is quietly unnerving as a lifeform on the prowl in Scotland. She harvests the bodies of men for sustenance, leaving their skins behind. It’s a performance that is sure to get under your skin.