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The Smartest Villains In Sci-Fi Movie History

Updated May 19, 2021 724 votes 109 voters 9.8k views15 items

List RulesVote 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: 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.

    Evil genius?
  • 2. 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.

    Evil genius?
  • 3. The Architect ('The Matrix' Franchise)

    Photo: The Matrix Reloaded / Warner Bros.

    Who/What Is It? Known only by its title, the Architect is a highly sophisticated AI program that takes the form of a middle-aged Caucasian man when interacting with human consciousnesses.

    Evil Genius Bonafides: The Architect created the first Matrix as a virtual utopia to subdue the minds of the humans used by the machines as living batteries. The "Paradise Matrix" was a completely immersive world where humans could live simulated lives free of pain and suffering. When humans rejected a perfect world, the machines lost their "crops" and the Architect designed a second world, the "Nightmare Matrix." This version of the Matrix allowed for tragedy and hardship and even included horrifying mythological creatures like vampires, werewolves, and zombies. This Matrix also failed, so the Architect continued to experiment, eventually creating the sixth Matrix that Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus inhabited, all so the machines could drain the body heat from living humans.

    Greatest Evil Genius Moment: Forced to confront its own limitations, the Architect used a human intuitive program dubbed "the Oracle" to design a version of the Matrix between the Paradise and Nightmare versions, where humans had the power of choice. This version of the Matrix was accepted by humans and served as their mental prisons for three iterations.

    Evil genius?
  • 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.

    Evil genius?