1. Mark Wahlberg, Transformers: Age Of Extinction (2014)
Cade Yeager has a problem: Nobody can take him seriously. The inventor and self-taught robotics expert has sacrificed his personal life and his family’s financial stability in the pursuit of science, but whenever he tries to explain his discoveries, the words come out in a cadence usually reserved for New England construction sites. His tortoise-shell glasses look just plain goofy. When he sits down in his makeshift lab to solder some circuit boards, his massive biceps get in the way. Cade suffers from a ailment that has plagued fictional scientists for decades: implausible casting. As smart as he might be, Cade can never overcome the fact that he’s being played by beefy Bostonian goofball Mark Wahlberg in Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age Of Extinction, which makes him the least convincing thing in a three-hour movie about giant alien robots that turn into cars. To the movie’s credit, though, at least one of his inventions seems like something Mark Wahlberg would build: a malfunctioning “beer butler” that can never quite make it from the fridge to the couch.
2. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Junior (1994) and Batman & Robin (1997)
Arnold Schwarzenegger has always been more image than actor. A large part of his success as a performer and celebrity has come from his management of that image; a narrow range is only a problem when the limits of that range are highlighted through poor role choices. See, for example, the 1994 Ivan Reitman comedy Junior. Arnie plays a cold, distant scientist who, through a series of in no way ridiculous or improbable events, becomes the first man to ever carry a human fetus to term. It’s a premise so inherently ridiculous that it’s hard to imagine any relatively straight-faced movie pulling it off, but casting the Terminator himself in the lead does no favors. As he slowly succumbs to the hormones and mood swings of pregnancy, the actor’s inability to convey complex emotion on screen turns an already bizarre concept into unintentional self-parody. Schwarzenegger fared slightly better in Joel Schumacher’s legendary turkey Batman & Robin, if only by comparison. Sure, he’s just doing a variation on the smug, pun-spouting meathead he’s done a thousand times before, and it’s impossible to take him seriously as a Nobel Prize-winning scientist. But at least he doesn’t have to convey any deep feelings.
3. Denise Richards, The World Is Not Enough (1999)
It’s not that a nuclear physicist cannot be very attractive; nor do we doubt Denise Richards’ intelligence as a person. But The World Is Not Enough made absolutely no effort to sell her character, Christmas Jones, as a plausible, knowledgeable scientist—she strolls onto the scene in a skin-baring outfit, looking like a teenager on summer vacation. Richards was 27 during production for the James Bond film—so if her character was the same age, she finished her Ph.D. in nuclear physics in a quick-and-dirty five years before taking up a gig with a team decommissioning Soviet nukes in Kazakhstan. And all of that while maintaining such a stellar physique! Richards told the BBC she took the role because Dr. Jones was “brainy and athletic,” but her braininess is reduced largely to terrible, punny exchanges with Pierce Brosnan and defending her weird name.
4. James Franco, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011)
Asking audiences to accept that an army of super-smart apes will eventually take over the world is one thing. But it takes a true suspension of disbelief to buy the stoner-doofus star of Freaks And Geeks and Pineapple Express as a brilliant scientist. Tossing plausibility to the wind, as an angry primate might toss… well, something else, the franchise reboot Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes casts modern renaissance man and abysmal Oscar host James Franco as the genius behind an IQ-boosting wonder drug. For all his extracurricular pursuits—including poetry, music, and a couple of university teaching gigs—Franco rarely exudes much in the way of braininess on camera. He spends most of Apes, in fact, with a vaguely dazed expression on his face, as though he were auditioning for the role of one of the mute, devolved humans from the original. Or maybe the actor, who’s not returning for this summer’s sequel, was too bored with the part to invest it with the proper intellectual curiosity. Either way, it’s hard to take Franco seriously as a leader in any field. Some science-fiction premises are just too outlandish.
5. Nicolas Cage, Knowing (2009)
It’s not that Nicolas Cage always plays idiots. While his turn as well-meaning space cadet H.I. McDunnough in Raising Arizona may be one his best, the actor’s manic energy suggests a relentlessly curious mind, and his wide range of starring vehicles has given him plenty of opportunities to avoid being typecast as a lovable hick. But even in that range, “professor of astrophysics at MIT” seems like a bit of a stretch. Cage is such a live-wire presence that the idea of him sitting calmly through endless lecture series, delivering and defending a dissertation, and teaching year after year of classes is almost funny enough to justify a movie in its own right. Instead, Alex Proyas’ 2009 doomsday thriller Knowing uses the character’s supposed knowledge base and education as a starting point to tell an increasingly ludicrous tale about the possible end of the world. Cage’s method insanity fits well enough in the film’s third act, as civilization falls down around his ears. But it’s hard to accept him as the sane, level-headed expert the story needs him to be in its first two acts. And without that character arc, it’s just a lot of stalling until the explosions start.
6. Tara Reid, Alone In The Dark (2005)
For a spell in the 2000s, Uwe Boll was online fan culture’s favorite whipping boy. The bungling German director first attracted attention for his game adaptations, including Alone In The Dark, a Mystery Science Theater 3000-grade sci-fi horror flick where bandages disappear and reappear, camera assistants have a tendency to find their way into the frame, and one-time tabloid fixture Tara Reid plays an archeologist. (Yes, she wears fake glasses.) Though long relegated to the direct-to-video market (last two credits: Sharknado, The Hungover Games), Reid is not untalented, and gave plenty of good performances early in her career. However, Alone In The Dark—which, unfortunately, became one of her best-known roles—seems engineered to make everyone involved look as vapid as possible. It’s hard to blame Reid for her notorious mispronunciation of “Newfoundland” in the movie; after all, anyone on the set could have corrected her. The movie was made in Canada, after all.
7. Mickey Rourke, Iron Man 2 (2010)
It’s a familiar narrative: movie star comes back from the brink with an awards-buzz performance, then confirms the revitalized career with a role in a big-budget A-list summer movie. The makers of Iron Man 2 may have failed to realize, though, the extent to which tough guy Mickey Rourke defies familiar narratives. As Ivan Vanko, a Russian physicist who constructs Iron Man-like devices in order to exact revenge on the Stark family, Rourke spends much of the movie glowering in silence, obsessing over his pet bird, and serving as a stony scene partner for a typically squirrely, hilarious Sam Rockwell (playing a Stark rival who hires Vanko to destroy his competitor in a manner somewhat less murderous than Vanko prefers). Rourke’s weirdness in no way connects to his scientific abilities, which are left vague, and his signature animalistic energy makes him appear ill-suited to the process-heavy world of experimentation and analysis. There’s no science, in other words, to the art of Rourke.
8. Jessica Alba, Fantastic Four (2005)
To be fair, none of the scientists in Fantastic Four are particularly convincing, and that’s more a script problem than a casting problem; the film is abysmally stupid about anything remotely touching on a technical or technological field. This is the kind of story where a hospital bed’s heart monitor also measures BMI—apparently because body mass might fluctuate wildly from moment to moment? But even so, Jessica Alba is especially hard to buy as a scientist, because she seems to have trouble handling even the extremely limited range of reactions that stupid script gives her. When rich, powerful, has-it-all villain Victor Von Doom introduces her character, hero-to-be Sue Storm, as his “director of genetic research,” her ex-beau Reed Richards flinches, and his buddy Ben Grimm mutters “That’s one more thing he’s got.” It’s an unfortunate but accurate choice of words: Sue is a thing rather than a person, a plot switch that trips between bland smiling, pouting when Richard isn’t showing the love she wants from him, and looking vaguely constipated with worry. As an actor, she’s more rigid than Ben Grimm’s rock-covered hide. The writers are a little creepy about drooling over her (sample line from the script: “She slowly disappears… all that’s left of her is the blush on her cheek and her bewitching eyes.”), but they seem to be aware of her limitations, and they don’t give her any lines much more complicated than “You are such a dork, Reed. You never got it, and never will, unless it’s explained to you in quantum physics.” But it’s hard to believe in her as a scientist when she’s barely even believable as a human being.
9. Keanu Reeves, Chain Reaction (1996)
In a world addicted to petroleum, up-and-comer Eddie Kasalivich unlocks the secret of obtaining clean energy by splitting the hydrogen and oxygen molecules within water. It’s a pretty neat trick, and one with the potential to change the world, but it comes across as little more than dumb luck when it’s Keanu Reeves making the scientific discovery. Forget that there’s no aura of genius emanating from Eddie. Even when he’s just informing his co-worker, Dr. Lily Sinclair (Rachel Weisz), that her car isn’t starting because the battery’s dead, it feels like he’s taking a wild guess. At least Reeves is consistent in his lack of credibility: Calling his mentor to brag, Eddie delivers the news of his historic breakthrough as though he were announcing that he had just started the dishwasher.
10. Tor Johnson, The Beast Of Yucca Flats (1961)
Throughout the history of the sport, there have been a few professional wrestlers who have managed to prove their acting chops outside of the ring. Tor Johnson was no such success story—probably because many of the films he appeared in were directed by Ed “Worst Director of All Time” Wood. The Beast Of Yucca Flats, a stinker infamous enough to rival Wood’s work, has the audacity to cast the lumbering athlete as a Soviet scientist.. In fairness, the role doesn’t require him to rattle off a great deal of scientific jargon; it becomes evident quickly that his character will become the titular beast. But this is an actor so bad at delivering dialogue that even Wood tended to avoid giving him lines. (He stays silent in Bride Of The Monster and Night Of The Ghouls—though not, unfortunately, in Plan 9 From Outer Space.) Mute monsters, in other words, were in Johnson’s wheelhouse. Scientists, not so much.
11. Jerry O’Connell, Sliders (1995-1999)
On Sliders, Jerry O’Connell played a physics grad student studying string theory; his character is the one responsible for developing the pathway to the cross-dimensional wormholes. The brainy role is a far cry from most of O’Connell’s adult acting gigs. Pre-Sliders, he appeared in the short-lived sitcom Camp Wilder with Hilary Swank. Later, he played a string of athletes (football players in Jerry Maguire and Body Shots), pretty faces (Sidney’s meathead boyfriend in Scream 2), rom-com foils (Baby On Board), scumbags (Piranha 3D), and insipid, hapless leading men (Tomcats, Kangaroo Jack). So generally jocky has his body of work turned out that his leading role on Sliders looks in retrospect like a case of extreme casting against type. Alternate realities seem plausible compared to the idea that Jerry O’Connell could discover them.
12. Bill Murray, Ghostbusters (1984)
13. Will Ferrell, Land Of The Lost (2009)
Once in a while, a movie will glory in its ill-fitting casting, making the incongruity part of the joke. Case in point: In Ghostbusters, Bill Murray, rumpled wiseass, plays a scientist with seemingly zero interest in his field. His Peter Venkman is introduced gaming a paranormal experiment to flirt with girls, and throughout the movie offers only deadpan assessments in the face of genuine geeks Egon (Harold Ramis) and Ray (Dan Akyroyd). It’s hard to picture Dr. Venkman making it through the rigors of a Ph.D. program, except possibly in some kind of snobs-versus-slobs scenario. Land Of The Lost, one of the many big-budget comedies aiming for a Ghostbusters-style mix of laughs and crazy effects, adds another Saturday Night Live alum to the questionable scientific community: Will Ferrell as paleontologist Dr. Rick Marshall. Ferrell’s Marshall has the obsessiveness of a star scientist, and his raging grandiosity chased with crippling insecurity probably has some real-life counterparts. But this being a Ferrell comedy, both sides of Marshall’s personality tend to result in him getting disgraced, duped, chased, and at one point ingested by a dinosaur. His incompetence is the movie’s comic engine, just as Venkman’s academic indifference fuels Ghostbusters.