Photo: Ex Machina / A24

The Smartest Villains In Sci-Fi Movie History

Voting Rules
Vote up the sci-fi villains so smart, they qualify as an existential threat.

Extremely intelligent people have often been viewed with suspicion by their less limber-minded and inquisitive contemporaries. Throughout history, people we now call "scientists" were the shamans, wizards, and alchemists of their societies, and their efforts to study and manipulate biology, chemistry, and physics often branded them outcasts or heretics. The progress and prosperity of our modern world can be attributed to those enlightened minds who asked important questions about how and why things work and how to use them for the betterment of all. Even so, highly intelligent people have also used their intellect in destructive ways; consider how many technological breakthroughs are driven by the desire to make better weapons of war. Economic success in corporate culture can often be attributed to smart business leaders with psychopathic tendencies, as they tend to be more ruthless in pursuit of profits.

Knowing what a powerful mind can accomplish, it's no wonder so many of the greatest villains of science fiction are evil geniuses. Mad scientists in sci-fi movies have become a well-worn trope, and for good reason. Villains with physical strength and power are challenging antagonists, but it's the smart villains that are the most difficult to overcome. How can the heroes hope to stop opponents whose actions are unpredictable, whose schemes are mapped out over decades, or whose minds (or CPUs) simply work faster than theirs? Whether a raving lunatic, an emotionless sociopath, or a cold, calculating artificial intelligence, smart villains dominate sci-fi movies. Here are the smartest, maddest, evilest sci-fi villains of the bunch.

Photo: Ex Machina / A24

  • Emperor Palpatine ('Star Wars' Franchise)
    Photo: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

    Who/What Is He? Sheev Palpatine was a seemingly noble member of the Republic Senate from the planet Naboo who secretly practiced the dark side of the Force as Darth Sidious. He later became emperor of the Galactic Empire, with dominion over tens of millions of planets. After his apparent demise, he later returned as a misshapen clone of his former self.

    Evil Genius Bonafides: As his Sith name suggests, Palpatine was incredibly cunning and insidious. He masterminded a grand scheme to overthrow the Galactic Republic from within and did so right under the noses of the Jedi Order. Palpatine used his apprentice Count Dooku to orchestrate a crisis between the Trade Federation and the Republic that led to him becoming elected supreme chancellor. He then created the Grand Army of the Republic by taking possession of the Clone Army originally commissioned to combat the Sith and used it to enforce his will throughout the galaxy.

    Greatest Evil Genius Moment: In one fell swoop, Palpatine nearly obliterated all obstacles to his dominion of the galaxy. By ordering Clone Protocol 66, he activated a behavioral modification command in all clones that forced them to identify all Jedis and potential Jedis, even "younglings," as traitors and kill them on sight. Roughly 9,800 Jedis were slaughtered during this "Jedi Purge," with less than 200 surviving by going into hiding. With the Jedi Order destroyed, Palpatine declared himself emperor and took complete control of the galaxy.

    135 votes
  • Khan ('Star Trek' Franchise)
    Photo: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan / Paramount Pictures

    Who/What Is He? A genetically-engineered Human Augment from Earth, Khan Noonien Singh was "the best" of many "supermen" created during the late 20th century. Physically and mentally superior to standard humans and even his fellow Augments, Khan was a ruthless warrior and tactician.

    Evil Genius Bonafides: In 1992, Khan became the tyrant ruler of more than one-fourth of the world's population, with an empire that spanned from Asia to the Middle East. When other Augments attempted to follow suit and seize power, humanity rose up against them in the Eugenics War. Realizing he was vastly outnumbered, Khan fled Earth with 84 Augment followers in a "sleeper ship," where they remained in suspended animation for nearly 300 years. After being discovered and revived by Captain James T. Kirk of the USS Enterprise, Khan and his followers first seized control of the ship and then attempted to destroy it. Eventually bested by Kirk and stranded on the uncolonized Ceti Alpha V, Khan managed to keep his followers alive even after the planet was devastated by ecological catastrophe.

    Greatest Evil Genius Moment: Eighteen years later, Khan and his remaining followers were inadvertently discovered on Ceti Alpha V by the USS Reliant. Khan commandeered their ship and flew to spacelab Regula I to steal Project Genesis, a device capable of terraforming - or obliterating - a planet instantaneously. With little effort, he lured the Enterprise into conflict, crippled the starship, and stranded Kirk and his landing party on a planetoid.

    105 votes
  • Arnim Zola (Marvel Cinematic Universe)
    Photo: Captain America: The Winter Soldier / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

    Who/What Is He? A brilliant Swiss-born scientist and engineer, Dr. Arnim Zola was a special weapons designer for Nazi Germany and the lead scientist for Hydra. He later transitioned from human to artificial intelligence.

    Evil Genius Bodafides: Light years ahead of his contemporaries, Zola created advanced exoskeleton combat suits for the Nazis in the 1930s. Under the Red Skull, he managed to capture and control the cosmic energies of the Tesseract, creating powerful energy rifles, cannons, bombs, and engines for Hydra. Zola was also the first to partially replicate the Super-Soldier Serum that Abraham Erskine had used to create Captain America. After being captured by the Allies, Zola was offered asylum in the United States as part of Operation Paperclip and recruited into S.H.I.E.L.D. In secret, he continued to perfect his version of the Super-Soldier Serum and advanced brainwashing techniques that turned Bucky Barnes into the assassin known as the Winter Soldier.

    Greatest Evil Genius Moment: When diagnosed with a terminal illness in 1972, Zola constructed a massive supercomputer - "200,000 feet of databanks" - and transferred his consciousness into it. He lived on as an artificial intelligence into the present day, using his immortality to fully infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D. with Hydra operatives in a bid to take over the world.

    88 votes
  • 4
    94 VOTES

    Nathan Bateman ('Ex Machina')

    Nathan Bateman ('Ex Machina')
    Photo: A24

    Who Is He? An alcoholic multi-billionaire engineer, inventor, and programmer with narcissistic and sadistic tendencies.

    Evil Genius Bonafides: Nathan was the creator and lead programmer of BlueBook, a search engine used to perform 90% of all internet searches. He then turned his intellect toward creating lifelike gynoids. By using data gathered from the personal information and searches of billions of BlueBook users, he created advanced artificial intelligence with qualities on par with humans. To make his gynoids move and react more like humans, he hacked billions of cell phones and used stolen video recordings of people in motion. 

    Greatest Evil Genius Moment: Nathan invited Caleb Smith, a BlueBook programmer, to his mountain retreat under the pretense of having him test whether his latest gynoid model, Ava, could pass for human. Secretly, Nathan had designed the experiment to see if Ava was capable of deceiving Caleb into helping her escape the torture and abuse she and the other gynoids were subjected to by their creator.

    94 votes
  • Who Is He? Septimus Pretorius is an amoral megalomaniac with a doctorate in philosophy. As the former teacher of Henry Frankenstein, he encouraged the scientist to continue his reanimation experiments, which led to the creation of the Monster.

    Evil Genius Bonafides: After being expelled from his teaching position, Pretorius sought out Frankenstein, who had by that time created the Monster. Even though he did not possess the knowledge of chemistry and biology that Frankenstein possessed, Pretorius attempted to emulate his former student's experiments. He managed to create various homunculi from seeds and seaweed, which he dressed up and bottled for his own amusement: a queen, a king, a dancer, a mermaid, and a devil.

    Greatest Evil Genius Moment: Unable to create a full-sized human on his own, Pretorius blackmailed Frankenstein into helping him create a mate for the Monster. Frankenstein provided the body, while Pretorius provided an artificially grown brain, and together they gave life to the Bride of Frankenstein.

    52 votes
  • 6
    91 VOTES

    David 8 ('Alien' Franchise)

    Who/What Is He? Created by billionaire inventor Sir Peter Weyland, David was an advanced artificial human and the template for the mass-produced David 8 and Walter line of androids. Unlike later commercial models, Weyland had developed David to be more creative and even emotional, with an insatiable need to discover the origins of life.

    Evil Genius Bonafides: Assigned to the crew of the USCSS Prometheus' mission to the planet LV-223, David's vast knowledge allowed him to interpret the alien language of the Engineers found on their artifacts and structures. After discovering a black substance with unusual properties, he surreptitiously acquired a sample and used it to secretly experiment on crew member Charlie Holloway. Once infected, the mutating Holloway unwittingly impregnated his lover, crew member Elizabeth Shaw, with an alien lifeform, which David hoped to study. David then used his understanding of the language of the Engineers to turn on their dormant spaceship and awaken one of the Engineers that was still alive in suspended animation. Even after being decapitated by the Engineer, David assisted Shaw in navigating the alien vessel to the Engineer homeworld, Planet 4.

    Greatest Evil Genius Moment: After arriving at Planet 4, David deemed the Engineers, like humans, an inferior species, and used their own mutagenic pathogen to wipe out their entire civilization. He killed Shaw and experimented on her mutilated corpse and those of deceased Engineers to create the Praetomorphs, early versions of the Xenomorphs that would become the most dangerous biological weapons of all time.

    91 votes