Transhumanism in the Movies
What is the Transhumanist Movement?
Transhumanism is a movement that embraces the enhancement of human beings through science. Transhumanists believe that through science we will evolve into beings that are more than merely human, and be humans+ (therefore, the symbol for transhumanism is H+). Imagine our brains with computer chips in them, giving us instant access to all of the knowledge in the world. Picture genetically altered humans, free of deformities, with improved intelligence, strength, and beauty. Envision uploading our minds into beautiful cyborgs that resemble human beings. Picture immortality. These are but some of the scenarios that transhumanists envision. How have movies dealt with this topic? How is the impact of human enhancement through technology portrayed? Will it benefit or hurt mankind? Let's explore some popular movies with transhumanist themes.
2001 A Space Odyssey
1968 - Directed by Stanley Kubrick (Screenplay written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clark)
Starring Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood
Mankind 's evolution is aided by a mysterious monolith that has been left on Earth by an alien intelligence. After the monolith gives off a piercing noise, nearby apes take a leap in evolution and learn to use tools and defeat their enemies. Next, man goes to the moon and finds another monolith which sends a radio signal to Jupiter. A two man crew sets out to investigate. During the journey, the computer system Hal goes insane, and kills one of the pilots. The other pilot, David Bowman, dismantles the berserk computer and continues on by himself. When he gets to Jupiter, he sees another monolith, and follows it in a discovery pod. The pod is swept into a vortex which hurdles Bowman great distances across alien worlds. Finally he finds himself in a series of strange rooms, viewing his own demise. On his deathbed, he sees the monolith, and reaches out to it. In the final scene, he has evolved into a star child, gazing down at earth. Bowman has evolved into something beyond a human, and soared past his human limits with the help of the alien race.
Transhumanists believe that we could reach such heights through our own science, and that someday we will learn how to scan our brains and upload them into computers. Once our consciousness becomes digitized, we could actually project ourselves through space at the speed of light, and be received by some artificial container at another point. Once we achieve these capabilities, would we be star children, almost pure consciousness with a cosmically proportioned awareness and intelligence? At this point would we have completely lost our humanity and be something completely different - a post-human?
1984 - The Terminator - Directed by James Cameron
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton
1991 - Terminator 2: Judegment Day - Directed by James Cameron
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick and Edward Furlong
2003 - Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines - Directed by Jonathan Mostow
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes and Kristanna Loken
2009 - Terminator Salvation - Directed by Joseph McGinty Nichol
Starring Christian Bale and Sam Worthington
The Terminator Series
In the world of 2029, machines have taken over the world, and mankind is at war with them. Hero Kyle Reese is sent back into the past to protect Sarah Connor. A terminator, sent from the future by the machines, is pursuing Sarah. The terminator appears human, but is actually a cyborg killing machine. In the future, the Machines will completely exterminate the last humans unless Sarah Connor gives birth to John Connor, and raises him to become the resistance leader. The series goes through Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and concludes with Terminator Salvation. In Terminator Salvation, Marcus is a criminal on death row who agrees to turn his body over to science after his execution. During a resistance attack on Skynet led by John Connor, Marcus mysteriously emerges from the wreckage and joins forces with Connor. It ends up that Marcus, although he thinks he's human, is actually a hybrid – part human, part cyborg. Despite the fact that Marcus was built to destroy Connor, Marcus tears out the hardware that links him to Skylab, and eventually ends up sacrificing his own heart to save Connor, who is wounded in a battle against a terminator.
One transhumanist theme in the Terminator series is the eventual superiority of machine over man that may occur once machines become smarter than man. Transhumanism speaks of this as the point of singularity. Once machine intelligence passes human intelligence, there is no predicting the outcome, and perhaps machines would turn on their inferior human creators. The twist at the end shows Marcus as a combination of man and machine. He is a trans-human, but his humanity enables him to triumph over the machines.
1997 - Directed and written by Andrew Niccol
Starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurmon and Jude Law
This movie is set in a future world where there are two distinct forms of humans. Most people are genetically enhanced to be free of disease, super-intelligent, amazingly strong and physically perfect. Those who don't choose to become enhanced (the in-valids) are left behind, and are considered inferior. For those “less fortunate”, life is a struggle. The hero of the film, Vincent Freeman (played by Ethan Hawke) was conceived naturally, and is an in-valid. Based on a DNA test done when he was born, Vincent has a 99% chance of developing a heart defect before he turns 30. His parents allow their second child, Hugo, to be genetically enhanced because they realize that they have doomed Vincent to an inferior life. Hugo is stronger and smarter then Vincent, but Vincent works hard to overcome his shortcomings. His one dream is to become an astronaut for Gattaca Corporation, but he is barred from ever achieving this because of his genetic weaknesses. He decides that he will have to disguise himself somehow as a “valid” in order to accomplish his goals. He links up with Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), a “valid” who became paralyzed in a suicide attempt. Jerome sells his identity to Vincent, and Vincent struggles to realize his dream.
This film clearly shows the split that genetic enhancement could cause in society . It also differentiates between man's biological and spiritual nature. Jerome's attempted suicide shows that no matter how enhanced humans become, science can't elevate them spiritually. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Vincent obtaining his dream of going to the stars proves that the human spirit goes beyond genetics, and can't be determined through science.
The Bourne Legacy
2012 - Directed by Tony Gilroy,
Starring Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz and Edward Norton
In this movie, humans are enhanced to be weapons. Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) is a chemically enhanced super-soldier. Part of a secret defense program, he has been given drugs that greatly increase his intelligence and strength. His human-plus abilities can be seen in the very first scene of the movie where he is climbing a mountain and fighting off wolves at a training site in Alaska. When the defense program is threatened with exposure and suddenly shut down, Cross must flee from the government agents sent to assassinate him.
The message here is the danger of transhumanist scientific advances being put in the wrong hands, and being used for the wrong purposes. Many Transhumanists are concerned that if mainstream society rejects transhumanism, it will only develop underground, and be used for unethical purposes.
Battlestar Galactica and Caprica
Although not movies, these two TV series deserve mention.
Battlestar Galactica depicts a generation of people that have left their home planet Earth so many years ago that they no longer know where it is or if it even exists for sure. Long in the past humans have spread out to 12 colonies. One of the colonies is on Caprica, and this is where human-like machines called cylons are built. The cylons waged war against their human masters, and the 50,000 remaining humans flee from the 12 colonies in space ships. The war between cylons and humans continues throughout the series. Wandering in space, technophobic because their world has been destroyed by technology, the humans try to find their way back to Earth, their fabled home. Caprica, the prequel to Battlestar Gallactica, explores the development of the cylons. As it ends up, the cylons were a result of the transhumanist goal of uploading human consciousness into cybernetic bodies.
There are many interesting transhumanist concepts that are explored in this series. Are the trans-human cylons really that different from the humans? They seem to think like humans, love like humans, and even have religion. Ultimately, some of the cylons join forces with the humans. At the end, they find a new Earth where humans and the human-like cylons settle down. Together, they throw away all of their technology, and start anew.
In most of these movies the rise of Artificial Intelligence produced a dangerous situation where computers turned on their human creators. This is of concern to transhumanists, who believe that this is a real possibility. The enhancement of humans is depicted as something that could cause social conflict. Two distinct races – humans and trans-humans - could find it hard to live together. Perhaps humans would become a sub-class of society. Transhumanist technology could be misused, as in the Bourne Legacy. Although fascinating, transhumanism is portrayed as something to be wary of. Certainly these films make you think about what it means to be human – and possibly trans-human.