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A Brief Rundown of Great Movies Where Science Ruins Everything

In honor of the recent confusion around ‘I Am Legend’ — no, a vaccine didn’t turn everyone into zombies — we look back at other films in which scientific curiosity leads to disaster

When it comes to COVID, it’s important to trust the science — not the misinformed impressions you get from movies you only half-remember. Of all the dubious reasons anti-vaxxers cite for endangering themselves and others by not getting the vaccine, perhaps the oddest occurred this week when, in a New York Times piece, one reluctant individual mentioned she was leery because of… I Am Legend.

To be generous for a moment, I can actually sorta understand this person’s bewilderment. In the opening scene of that Will Smith film, Emma Thompson’s scientist character explains that she’s figured out how to reprogram the measles virus to help cure cancer — which, okay, might sound like a vaccine. Most of us aren’t scientists, so this stuff can be confusing.

Still… folks, it’s a movie. It’s not real, and it’s not based on actual science. Also, it’s not a vaccine that turns everyone into a zombie in that film. And perhaps most importantly, if you’re using I Am Legend as your excuse for not getting vaccinated, you’re probably the kind of low-information individual who’s looking for any rationale to justify your decision and/or are fairly gullible.

With all that said, what’s interesting is that I Am Legend is hardly the first film to build its premise around a seemingly amazing scientific discovery suddenly going horribly wrong, leading to terrible consequences. In fact, there’s a whole strain of horror movies devoted to this idea, which shouldn’t be surprising. Because most audience members don’t have science backgrounds, our ignorance can bleed over into suspicion or paranoia: What if those smarty-parts science people don’t know what they’re doing?! The unknown is always a rich vein for horror, and since science is so mysterious to so many of us, it can be frightening to ponder worst-case scenarios.

With that in mind, I’m spotlighting 10 examples of great “When Science Goes Wrong” movies — and, as an added bonus, I’ll examine just how wide-ranging the consequences would be if the terrible thing actually happened. In some films, the whole world’s safety is at stake. In others, hey, it’s just a dad who accidentally shrunk some kids. 

Frankenstein (1931)

How Does the Science Go Wrong? Probably the greatest “Man shouldn’t play God” film of all time, Frankenstein (based on the Mary Shelley novel) tells the story of Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), a scientist determined to create life, stitching together different body parts to form a patched-up creation that he’ll bring to consciousness, thereby proving his genius. Henry succeeds, but only in bringing us a terrifying, mournful monster (Boris Karloff).

What Are the Potential Planet-Wide Consequences? It’s just one monster, so the world is probably going to be fine, but James Whale’s film (like the book before it) is more of a condemnation of Henry Frankenstein than his creation. (As horror fans always point out, the “Frankenstein” of the title is Henry — Karloff’s character doesn’t have a name.) By messing with the building blocks of human life, Henry displays an arrogance deserving of scorn, and the cruel way the world treats his monster is depressingly relatable in our modern age of xenophobia and anti-immigrant fervor. Any time a movie scientist has a mad vision to bring something to life, Frankenstein serves as a warning for the horrible fallout that will almost certainly occur as a result. 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

How Does the Science Go Wrong? Dr. Jekyll (Fredric March) is a pillar of his community, the consummate good guy. (Even when a beautiful woman tries to seduce him, this upstanding man resists because he’s already spoken for.) But because Jekyll’s so decent, he wonders if, even within himself, there’s a penchant for darkness. His curiosity prompts him to pursue foolhardy scientific experiments that unleash his demonic altar ego, the hedonistic, dangerous Mr. Hyde (also played by March), who quickly takes control.

What Are the Potential Planet-Wide Consequences? None, unless you’re counting the fact that this story (adapted from the Robert Louis Stevenson tale) has been ubiquitous in our culture for a century. Whether you’re talking about the Jerry Lewis or Eddie Murphy version, The Nutty Professor is a comedic take on the same material, with both franchises keying into Stevenson’s moral: Even good guys have the capacity to be monsters.

The Invisible Man (1933)

How Does the Science Go Wrong? Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) has come up with a drug that will render you invisible. That sounds like a potentially lucrative discovery, but there’s a problem: It also drives you insane. Soon, the ambitious scientist has been turned into a sociopath, killing indiscriminately as he becomes intoxicated by his ability to avoid detection.

What Are the Potential Planet-Wide Consequences? Thankfully, this is pretty localized, so we don’t have to worry about Griffin destroying Earth because of his invention. But over the years, there have been remakes, including Hollow Man and last year’s The Invisible Man, which expanded the idea by suggesting that modern men would use this invention to torment the women in their lives — a stinging comment about toxic masculinity and perpetrators’ ease in escaping punishment because of the greatest power of all, being men in a patriarchal society.

Godzilla (1954)

How Does the Science Go Wrong? Hmm… maybe atomic testing isn’t the best idea? In Japan, scientists explode a nuclear device underwater, unleashing a mighty beast named Godzilla that wreaks havoc across the land. 

What Are the Potential Planet-Wide Consequences? Oh, they’re pretty bad. As we’ve seen in dozens of remakes and sequels, Godzilla will travel anywhere and cause countless damage wherever he goes. The 1950s were filled with sci-fi and horror films that based their thrills and chills on the very real fear of possible nuclear war that flourished after World War II. But none of those movies spoke to that anxiety as directly as Godzilla, by which I mean the Japanese original — not the terrible “Americanized” version featuring Raymond Burr. That one, called Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, lacks the true terror of the 1954 edition, which provides a scarred psychic snapshot of the Japanese people, who were still reeling from the bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

The Terminator (1984)

How Does the Science Go Wrong? Computerized defense systems were meant to make us feel more safe, not less. But then came Skynet, which gained consciousness and decided that it wanted to overthrow its human masters. That’s the backstory to The Terminator, in which the robots won — the nuclear war helped cement their victory — and now the survivors, in the form of resistance fighter Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), must go back in time to save future-mother-of-the-rebellion Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) before an android killing machine (Arnold Schwarzenegger) can assassinate her.

What Are the Potential Planet-Wide Consequences? Catastrophic. Nuclear annihilation was still a big fear in the 1980s, but so was the notion that our technology would enslave us. Everything from Blade Runner to The Matrix mapped out that anxiety over the next few decades, but The Terminator (and its turbo-charged 1991 sequel) makes the anxiety frighteningly real. Maybe our future won’t actually be like that James Cameron classic, but a lot of us are still waiting for artificial intelligence to start calling the shots.

The Fly (1986)

How Does the Science Go Wrong? Arrogant scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) seems to have everything going his way: He’s started seeing reporter Ronnie (Geena Davis), and he’s at the cusp of coming up with a process by which matter can be teleported from one location to another. But one night, he gets jealous, mistakenly thinking Ronnie wants back with her ex, and gets wasted, deciding, you know what, maybe he should see what happens when he teleports himself in the machine. Bad news, Seth: You didn’t realize a fly got into the device, and now your DNA is fusing, turning you into a big bug.

What Are the Potential Planet-Wide Consequences? It’s rich poetic justice that self-centered Seth’s screwup only really affects him — and, of course, poor Ronnie, who watches him deteriorate in sad, disgusting fashion. Remaking the 1958 original, director David Cronenberg created a landmark in body horror, which also doubled as an oddly poignant AIDS metaphor as Seth slowly dies from an unstoppable disease that seems to be destroying every part of himself. 

Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989)

How Does the Science Go Wrong? Listen, if you’re working on a shrink ray, make sure it can’t just accidentally go off when you’re away from home. That’s what happens to lovable scientist/family man Wayne (Rick Moranis) when he leaves for a conference, only to have his glitchy invention shrink his kids and the neighbor boy when they stumble upon it in his attic lab. You can’t be leaving your stuff around where anyone can get to it, Wayne.

What Are the Potential Planet-Wide Consequences? Minimal, although the success of the 1989 film did spawn a bunch of sequels and a TV show. Whereas a lot of the movies on this list are horror films, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids was a genial family flick that offered some fun adventure and sweet life lessons. It’s probably the only science-goes-bad film where everybody gets a happy ending. 

Jurassic Park (1993)

How Does the Science Go Wrong? What if scientists discovered dinosaur DNA in ancient mosquitos preserved in amber? And what if those scientists decided to clone those dinosaurs? And, then, what if an eccentric entrepreneur, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), chose to create an amusement park that put those majestic beasts on display for tourists to enjoy? Well, you’d get the premise for 1993’s biggest moneymaker, which is built entirely around the fact that, oh yeah, those dinosaurs are definitely gonna break free and cause all kinds of chaos.

What Are the Potential Planet-Wide Consequences? Jurassic Park has plenty of quotable lines, but among the best is sarcastic mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) warning the overconfident Hammond, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Luckily, not many dinosaurs can fly — and Hammond was at least astute enough to insist that only female dinosaurs be bred. But as the sequels and reboots made clear, once those creatures get loose, it’s awfully hard to contain them. Steven Spielberg’s film brought the science-goes-bad subgenre to the mainstream, although any attempt at a cautionary tale about the dangers of scientific meddling always take a backseat to “Let’s watch some T-Rexes rip shit up.” 

Primer (2004)

How Does the Science Go Wrong? Two young, nondescript office drones (David Sullivan and writer-director Shane Carruth) are trying to come up with inventions they can patent when, one night, they stumble upon an incredible realization: Somehow, they’ve invented time travel. But what starts off as a cool discovery quickly grows complicated once they begin to test the possibilities of their new invention, resulting in paranoia and multiple versions of themselves.

What Are the Potential Planet-Wide Consequences? The ultra-low-budget Primer is a marvel of nerdy detail, with Carruth playing out the realities of time travel in such a way that you will never, ever fantasize again about leaping through time. Basically, if such technology existed, you’d go insane, and the intimacy of this indie, while lacking global stakes, is plenty gripping. (That said, the film’s achievements shouldn’t overshadow the fact that Carruth faced serious allegations of mental, emotional and physical abuse from his ex-girlfriend, filmmaker Amy Seimetz, last year.)

Splice (2009)

How Does the Science Go Wrong? Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) are a loving couple who work as genetic engineers creating new creatures. Emboldened by their success, and the attention that comes with it, they decide to cross a line: They’re going to make a human-animal hybrid, using human DNA as part of their concoction. And so they bring into the world “Dren” (Delphine Chanéac), who starts developing at an alarming rate — not just threatening humanity’s future but also the couple’s relationship. 

What Are the Potential Planet-Wide Consequences? Splice came out at a time when debates around human cloning were intense, and the film presents a moody but alarming worst-case scenario of what might happen if scientists try to mess around with human DNA. Although clearly indebted to several earlier films on this list, Splice also goes its own way by commenting on parenthood and romantic relationships, placing Clive and Elsa in the weird position of being parents for their volatile “baby.” (Things get kinky from there once Dren starts to come on to Clive.) The consequences for the world are obvious, but Splice is ultimately more of a domestic drama featuring one truly disturbing romantic triangle.

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