Many popular scientists cite heroes ranging across the world of sci-fi when announcing their innovations. From H.G. Wells to Robert Heinlein and Charlie Jane Anders, these are the men and women whose worlds have changed generations. Whether they inspire us to better deeds or drive us to understand the potential horrors of mad science, these iconic characters made an impression. Here are seven high-tech heroes and villains who help us rethink the possible and forge the future.
Darth Vader – Star Wars (1977)
From the second he appears on screen, this Dark Lord of the Sith exudes power. While his true ally is the Force, Vader’s life-support equipment is the thing of sci-fi dreams and nightmares. Encased in a black suit with technology that regulates his breathing, Vader’s voice is one of terrific power. His is the power of the Dark Side, the ancient Force opposing the Light Side and its Jedi adherents.
Even before we learn his tragic backstory, we know that Lord Vader is a force to be reckoned with in the Star Wars universe. As the series unfolds, we learn that his is a tragic tale, with a great fall and final redemption. Add to that his red-bladed lightsaber and his ability to choke dissidents with little more than a swipe of his hand, and it’s easy to see why Darth Vader is one of the most inspiring of all the sci-fi icons Star Wars delivers.
Iron Man – Iron Man (2008)
Tony Stark likes to remind us that he is more than just a fancy, high-tech suit. But when he dons the fancy, high-tech suit, he’s not just Mr. Stark. He becomes Iron Man. The hero who overcame death with the power of engineering has never looked better than he does in the current Marvel Cinematic Universe. His suit has powers that not even Darth Vader has shown. It can fly, fire projectiles and even immediately assess and address his own wounds.
Tony’s digital assistant knows in seconds if he’s dying of oxygen loss, and it can identify personal injuries with a level of accuracy unsurpassed by today’s medical imaging technology. What really sells Iron Man, apart from his swagger, is his honesty. Tony Stark owes very little to very few, but whether he’s encouraging Captain America to surrender or giving a little tough love to Spider-Man, the once-orphaned hero has quickly become a father figure to many of the Avengers.
The Borg Queen – Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
Why worry about a father figure when you could have a queen? The Borg may have gotten their start on Star Trek: the Next Generation, but the silver-screen incarnation takes them to the next level. Here we have a Borg who can feel, who has agency and who seeks only the love of her life. The Borg Queen may not seem like the technological terror of Vader, but she is an insidious villain who knows exactly what Data needs and has insight into the mind of Captain Picard. Or should we say Locutus, of Borg?
What’s more, she has the technological prowess of countless societies at her beck and call, much of which takes the form of Borg vessels that can easily overpower much of what Starfleet has to offer. The Borg Queen makes us rethink a great many things. If technology could give us the one thing we want most in life, would we accept an offer of servitude? Could wearable technology and smart apparel someday be the norm and at what cost? The queen is an uncomfortable reminder for sci-fi fans of exactly what a dangerous temptress technology can be.
The Predator – Predator (1987)
Technological villains aren’t always insidious. Sometimes, they’re just dangerous. The Predator species uses advanced sci-fi tech to track down its targets, only tracking the greatest game it can find in its search for the greatest hunt. From the xenomorphs of deep space to the jungles of Guatemala, the Predator shows how and why he’s the ultimate hunter.
While it may be fun to envision what we could do with the Predator’s technology, he’s an even greater villain. Running from a creature bent on the hunt who has all the powers of invisibility, infrared vision, hidden blades and even tactical nuclear weapons is sure to inspire terror in even the most stalwart of men and women. Even if humans have managed to get the upper hand once or twice, to the Predator, they’re still prey.
Mister Freeze – Batman & Robin (1997)
Who is so tragic in the world of DC Comics as Dr. Victor Fries? Almost regardless of which origin you’ve seen, his entire course of villainy takes place out of an act of love. Mister Freeze often turns to crime solely for a need to finance his own experiments, so he can find a cure for his beloved, Nora. These often-unethical experiments may not be sanctioned by any medical board, but they’re a crucial part of curing Nora and reviving her from frozen slumber.
Why then does Mister Freeze make the list? Because he shows us that tech can bring hope to the hopeless. His cryogenics experiments may have gone wrong, as shown in some origins, or may be intentional, but he uses his high-tech skills to keep hope alive. What would we do for love? Would we sacrifice a stranger? A friend? A city? The Batman & Robin incarnation may have been played for laughs in the lightest installment of Batman films, but it’s hard not to appreciate the sheer despair of a hope denied that grips the icy heart of Victor Fries.
The Transformers – Transformers (2007)
Whether they’re fans of the heroes or the villains, fans can’t get enough of the Transformers. The Autobots and the Decepticons are forever locked in war, and while a few have gone turncoat, they seem dedicated to their beliefs and the need to either save, condemn or restore Cybertron, based on who is telling the story. And that’s the point of the Transformers. There are many sides to a battle, and sometimes, you have to choose.
When Michael Bay told the story, he decided that it was best to show people how cool it could be if your car turned into your friend — if that friend was a towering metal colossus and part of a society that values human life. We guess it’s a good thing that the hero didn’t pick up a Decepticon at the used lot. Good versus evil is rarely as obvious as it can be with the Transformers, but that doesn’t make them any less inspiring as they cling to their goals and beliefs and fight for what they feel is right. All that metal, yet they often seem downright human.
These six film icons are often jaw-droppingly terrifying, awe-inspiring or simply a great example how how far technology can go. Such characters can provide the spark that leads to new fields of scientific inquiry and developments in medical care or maybe even spawn the next ingenious mad genius. These heroes and villains raise questions that science has to answer to move forward, and they challenge viewers to assess their own beliefs. Which heroes and villains inspire you to sci-fi dreams?