Science has advanced by leaps and bounds in the past century, and scientist tropes in the movies have likewise evolved. Originally there was the crazy, isolated gentleman-scientist of Frankenstein and his many imitators, messing with the secrets of life in the self-funded isolation of their basement laboratories. While the echoes of this trope live on, the ever-growing specialization within the sciences and development of huge and hugely expensive specialist equipment (e.g. particle accelerators) has made cutting-edge, self-funded, secretive research a far more exclusive bill to foot. In the 21st century, you basically need to be as rich as Tony Stark in order to afford the traditional mad scientist route (see: Tony Stark).
Between that and the rising profile of government and corporate-funded research, a new standard for problematic movie scientists emerged in the wake of World War II: the scientist-as-pawn, creating monsters and weapons at the direction of their financial backers. Both villain and hapless victim, movies still usually conclude that the scientist-pawn is at fault for the evil they happen to create, and they tend to be punished accordingly. There is a certain way in which Hollywood often uses death, especially violent death, to communicate moral lessons like John Doe in Se7en—you tend to get what a particular code of ethics would deem you “deserve,” whether that be a happy ending or a gruesome murder at the hands of your own creation. Just think of what usually happens to teenagers that have premarital sex in horror movies.
As such, the scientist-pawn often goes down one of two roads that ultimately reach the same final destination: either they continue on as usual until their work kills them or they have an eleventh-hour epiphany, realize that they had a heart all along in typical Tin Man style, and die heroically attempting to right their wrongs. Their body may be dead, but hey, at least now their immortal soul stands a chance, right?
A particularly self-aware example of the scientist-pawn can be seen in Pirahna (1978), that most prominent of Jaws knockoffs. Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy) develops weaponized piranhas under the direction of the U.S. military, which are then unwittingly released on the unsuspecting public by skiptracer Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) and her surly woodsman guide Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman), who trespass into Hoak’s research facility while looking for a pair of missing teenagers. In other words, Hoak did not come up with the idea for the piranhas or let them out. When Hoak confronts Maggie and Paul with this actual fact—”you pulled the plug and you’re holding me responsible?”—Maggie and Paul make it clear that yes, they do in fact hold him responsible. Any doubt that the film is in agreement with its protagonists regarding Hoak’s culpability is quickly removed, as Hoak proceeds to be murdered by his own piranhas less than three minutes later in the process of saving a little boy from that same fate.
// Spoilers for Venom below //
Recently, a new kind of scientist character has started to emerge: the science martyr. Related to the scientist-pawn, but featuring a significant twist, this new trope introduced in The Shape of Water with Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) is showing sciences of becoming a trend instead of an intriguing outlier thanks to the release of Venom, which finds Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate) filling the same role. Like the scientist-pawn, both Hoffstetler and Skirth are willing to do ethically dubious things for the greater good of Science™, with Hoffstetler even being a Russian spy to boot, in case there was any doubting the murkiness of his morality.
Much like scientist-pawn Dr. Hoak, Hoffstetler and Skirth end up playing turncoat in a certain regard, but their motivations for this switch mark a significant deviation from the scientist-pawn formula. Instead of suddenly realizing that their work is evil or that they are causing human suffering, they reach their breaking point upon being instructed to do something they deem unscientific, at which point they decide to risk their lives by betraying their superiors. Hoffstetler helps Elisa and friends save the Amphibian Man, Skirth blows the whistle on Elon Musk stand-in Carlton Drake’s (Riz Ahmed’s) Symbiote experiments and brings in investigative journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy).
Unlike the scientist-pawn, their actions do not really represent a change of heart. A sacrifice like Hoak’s functions as a sort of repentance, an acknowledgment of his sins of the name of science. What we see with Skirth and Hoffstetler is pretty much the direct opposite of that. Hoffstetler “switches sides” after his superiors order him to kill the Amphibian Man, deeming his existence too much of a threat, an act he considers repulsively unscientific (Hoffstetler’s attitude here fits a well-established movie scientist pattern, compare Dr. Arthur Carrington’s stance on the alien in The Thing from Another World). Skirth, who admits her willingness to do ethically dubious things in the name of finding a cure for cancer, reaches her breaking point with Drake and his under-the-table human experiments upon realizing that these “experiments” lack any form of research-based rationale or methodology that could be regarded as even vaguely scientific. Both are ultimately caught in their deceptions and killed. I wasn’t being hyperbolic in choosing “science martyr.” Death is a prerequisite for the whole “martyr” part.
The scientist-pawn heroic sacrifice boils down to the character distancing themselves from their scientific pursuits, while the science martyr risks their life to reaffirm a total commitment to scientific ideals. In doing so, the science martyr spends their final moments on the side of the good guys, but the underlying moral message isn’t about scientists being especially good so much as them not being quite as evil as certain alternatives.
Basically, movie scientists still have the same sort of skewed moral compasses they did back in the studio horror films of the 1930s and ’40s, but after about eighty years or so, it seems like the movies have come to the conclusion that even those skewed moral compasses are better navigational tools than the bottomless pits of evil that are megalomania and unregulated capitalist greed. Still, as far as the movies are concerned, scientists are generally bad people—unless, of course, they work for NASA, in which case they are absolutely wonderful, 10/10 would recommend.