Photo: Ex Machina / A24

The Smartest Villains In Sci-Fi Movie History

Over 100 Ranker voters have come together to rank this list of 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.

    106 votes
  • 3
    93 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.

    93 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.

    90 votes
  • Who Is He? Once a respected surgeon in London, Dr. Moreau became a pariah for his unethical experiments on animals. Forced out of England, Moreau relocated to a deserted island in the Java Sea to continue his work.

    Evil Genius Bonafides: Both in England and on his own private island, Moreau procured exotic animals from unscrupulous poachers to perform vivisections on them. Through the introduction of human DNA, he hoped to create human-animal hybrids that were devoid of the destructive elements of human behavior. He managed to create numerous mutants that he called his "children," but these "beast-men" were too animalistic and considered failed experiments. To prevent them from rising up against him or turning on each other, Moreau implanted them with electroshock-control microchips and dosed them with a serum designed to prevent them from regressing. He also created a rule of law/religion that forbade his beast-men from engaging in animalistic behavior and killing living creatures, which he ruthlessly enforced: "He who breaks the law, goes back to the House of Pain."

    Greatest Evil Genius Moment: The closest Moreau came to perfecting his human-animal hybridization was the creation of Aissa, whom he treated like a daughter. Unlike her bestial siblings, Aissa was well-spoken, inquisitive, and appeared physically to be completely human. However, without Moreau's serum, she too began to regress into a more animal form - in her case, feline.

    66 votes
  • Who Is He? A brilliant and promising student at the University of Zurich Institue of Medicine in Switzerland, Herbert West became obsessed with conquering death itself.

    Evil Genius Bonafides: Convinced that living bodies were merely complex machines capable of being restarted, West dedicated himself to developing a means of reanimating the dead. His experimental Re-Agent serum revived dead cell tissues, so he tested it on his recently deceased colleague, Dr. Hans Gruber. Gruber reanimated, but in severe agony, screaming in pain before his eyes exploded and he perished once again. West continued his experiments at Miskatonic University in Arkham, MA, first on a deceased cat, and then on a cadaver stolen from a morgue. Like Gruber, the body came back to life, but as a zombie-like creature that violently killed another of West's colleagues, Dr. Halsey, who West then also reanimated.

    Greatest Evil Genius Moment: When researcher Dr. Carl Hill attempted to blackmail West for his formula, West decapitated Hill. He then used the Re-Agent on Hill to separately animate both his body and his head.

    50 votes