With Benicio Del Toro ready to debut as Lawrence Talbot in Joe Johnston's The Wolfman tomorrow, it's time to pay tribute to transformations. When Lon Chaney Jr. played The Wolf Man in 1941, the physical transformation was effected through make-up and dissolves. But the idea wasn't just that Lawrence Talbot was changed physically, but that his interior life changed as well. All the make-up and special effects in the world can't hide a character who doesn't grow (or devolve) from the experience.
Science fiction opens up the possibilities considerably, expanding the idea of cross-species commingling. Here are my top ten sci-fi transformations, listed (almost) in alphabetical order.
1. Sam Worthington in Avatar
Jake Sully is a broken man in more ways than one, rendered paraplegic during his military service and broken of spirit as a result. He doesn't take much convincing to accept a mission that may earn him an operation to regain the use of his limbs. Little does he know that it's his increasingly intimate dealings with the Na'vi that will transform him body and soul. He may appear to be nine feet tall and blue, he may wag a new tail, but deep inside, it is his very essence that is changing.
2. William Hurt in Altered States
Eddie Jessup is a brilliant scientist, far more interested in expanding his mind and consciousness than worrying about his physical being. Yet the hours he spends floating in a sensory-deprivation tank -- not to mention the drugs -- begin to have an effect upon his body as well, drilling down far deeper than even the brilliant Jessup could ever have anticipated. The result is one of the more bizarre apparitions to appear on screen.
3. Sharlto Copley in District 9
Wikus Van De Merwe is a faceless bureaucrat, none too happy about the job he's given to do, but not willing to rock the boat and complain. He's completely under the thumb of his corporate overlords until he is accidentally exposed to an alien chemical. The most obvious manifestation of the chemical's effect, of course, is that one of his hands turns into a claw! Even more important to Wikus, though, is that the incident forces him to take a close look at himself and his own prejudices against the "prawns." His personality doesn't change overnight, but we see it just as clearly as that claw at the end of his arm.
4. Jeff Goldblum in The Fly
Seth Brundle is a brilliant scientist, completely focused on his work to the point that he wears an identical outfit every day to save time thinking about what he will wear. Happily, he loses enough focus to recognize the abundant charms of Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis). After the teleportation accident, after Brundle begins to physically transform, it's Goldblum's performance that sells the movie, convincing us of the strange metamorphosis.
5. Edward Norton in The Incredible Hulk
Bruce Banner is a brilliant scientist (hmmm, seems to be a pattern here). After his experiment gone wrong, he must learn to control his anger. Even the tiniest annoyance could flare into uncontrollable anger, and he doesn't want to bear any more guilt or add any further injuries to his own personal casualty list. If he was driven before -- and he was -- it's the possibility that he might transform that becomes his motivation to keep learning and to keep improving himself, quietly.
6. Invasion of the Body Snatchers
If you haven't seen Philip Kaufman's great 1978 version, then I don't want to spoil it by listing the name(s) or character(s) involved in the transformation from living, breathing, gloriously imperfect human being to emotionless pointing pod, but when it comes, it's shocking and sad and somehow inevitable.
7. Peter Weller in Robocop
Speaking of sad, Officer Alex J. Murphy's demise is tragic, beyond the horrific physical details of his bloody murder. He's one of the good ones, and he pays the ultimate price for honorably doing his sworn duty. His rebirth as Robocop, a man buried beneath miles of cable, wiring, and armor, is made more effective because we can still see Officer Murphy peeking out.
8. Hayden Christensen in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
For all the things that George Lucas did wrong with the prequels, and for all the blithering imperfections of Hayden Christensen's performance, the final transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader is chilling. No, not when the suit goes on -- a disastrous scene that should be scrubbed from the collective cinematic memory -- but when Anakin is left for dead by Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). That, to my mind, is the moment of final surrender to the dark side.
9. The Thing
Because there are multiple transformations in John Carpenter's version, I don't want to single one out, because they're all incredibly blood-curdling. Suffice it to say that The Thing gets it right with every single one.
10. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos in X-Men
Again, there is more than one great transformation scene in Bryan Singer's original, and I almost gave it to Bruce Davison's jelly-stretching arms and body as Senator Kelly, but in the end I've got to go with Mystique for highly personal reasons: she makes me sit up and pay attention every time I watch the movie.