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8 Best portrayals of scientists on film

BY Jamie Flook

1st Aug 2023 Film & TV

8 Best portrayals of scientists on film
From Hawking and Einstein to the fictional Doc Brown, these are some of the very best film portrayals of scientists
One of the most beautiful quirks of science is that it arguably throws up just as many questions as it does answers. Questions such as, “Are we alone in the universe?”, “Does time exist?” and “Why does Britain need hosepipe bans when it is surrounded by water?” 
Christopher Nolan’s new film Oppenheimer has hit the cinemas and it will hopefully give people a bit of an insight into the famed theoretical physicist J Robert Oppenheimer, played by Cillian Murphy. With that in mind, now feels like a good time to take a look at some of the most memorable portrayals of scientists in film. The list below includes both fictional characters and real-life people. 

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing (The Imitation Game)

The story of the Bletchley Park codebreakers who cracked the German Enigma code during the Second World War features Benedict Cumberbatch playing computer scientist Alan Turing—whose work was incremental in turning the tide of the war.
"Turing and Cumberbatch are actually related, with reports suggesting it is through a 14th-century ancestor"
Cumberbatch gave us a socially awkward genius with a very moving performance that was enough to garner him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Many years ago a spokesperson for the genealogy company Ancestry said that Turing and Cumberbatch are actually related, with reports suggesting it was through a 14th-century ancestor. 

Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking (The Theory of Everything)

Benedict Cumberbatch ultimately missed out on the Best Actor award to Eddie Redmayne, who won for his uncanny performance as cosmologist and fellow Cambridge graduate Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.
The Theory of Everything Universal Pictures International
Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything. Image: Universal Pictures International
The film is adapted from a book by Stephen’s former wife Jane Hawking, who had to deal with the enormous challenge of caring for Stephen while raising their children with him. Redmayne was so committed to the role that according to Time.com, he kept himself hunched over between takes so much that an osteopath told him he had altered the alignment of his spine

Jodie Foster as Ellie Arroway (Contact)

SETI Astronomer Ellie Arroway makes the discovery of a thousand lifetimes when she encounters what she believes to be extra-terrestrial messages from outer space.  
Jodie Foster brought an air of competence to a role created by real-life scientist Carl Sagan, who wrote the book the film is based on. Sagan died during before filming completed so he never got to see the completed production, which is a shame. If aliens somewhere watched Contact, what would they make of it? 

Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown (Back to the Future)

Doc Brown is possibly the second most famous fictional scientist after Dr Frankenstein.
"Christopher Lloyd initially wasn’t into the script and put it in a wastepaper basket"
The eccentric man who invents a time-travelling car was memorably played by Christopher Lloyd, who in 2021 told an interviewer on the US programme Today that initially he wasn’t into the script and put it in a wastepaper basket, before pulling it back out.  

Helen Hunt as Jo Harding (Twister)

A storm-chasing meteorologist probably has a winning ticket in terms of making a list like this.
But nevertheless, Helen Hunt kept a good grip on the character and brought respectability to what is pure popcorn entertainment. What great entertainment it is too.

Matt Damon as Mark Watney (The Martian)

Botanist Mark Watney is stranded on Mars and must use every morsel of knowledge he has to survive and eventually escape from the red planet. Sound travels slower on Mars so if you got in to problems there, screaming for help might not be immediately as effective as on Earth.
The Martian
Matt Damon in The Martian. Image: 20th Century Fox
Although The Martian is a classic survival story, Matt Damon’s likeable scientist has spirit, which will probably inspire astronauts and scientists of the future to dream of going where no man has gone before—even with all the risks that might involve. Damon brought depth to the role and played it in quite a refreshing way, as an underdog with a positive mindset. 

Walter Matthau as Albert Einstein (IQ)

A rom com featuring Albert Einstein scheming to help a car mechanic win the affections of his niece, who is a student at Princeton University, probably sounds utterly implausible.
"The beauty of film is the potential to make the seemingly impossible actually possible"
The beauty of film though is the potential to make the seemingly impossible actually possible and this was achieved with the help of Walter Matthau bringing bags of fun to a man who was known to have a good sense of humour. IQ is underrated and Matthau was on top comedic form here. 

David Bowie as Nikola Tesla (The Prestige)

Bowie’s stint as Nikola Tesla gave us a mysterious inventor with an aura of magic about him, which was kind of appropriate since The Prestige is about two warring magicians in Victorian England.  
The confident tone of Bowie’s Tesla arguably offers us a character who is spiritually isolated from mere mortals.  
Science is magic
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