Kraftwerk had it right over 30 years ago. Humans are going to merge with machines to create a new kind of species, and we can either embrace that future or run screaming from it. I’m still not sure which is the correct response, but I do know that this theme has been explored in plenty of movies. There aren’t any Robocops or Terminators on this list because I’m trying to search out films that I haven’t already seen. If you have others to recommend, please do so in the comments and maybe we can have Man-Machine Week 2!
Transcendent Man (2009) dir. Robert Barry Ptolemy
Sleep Dealer (2008) dir. Alex Rivera
Terminatrix (1995) dir. Mikio Hirota
The Gene Generation (2007) dir. Pearry Reginald Teo
Robot Stories (2003) dir. Greg Pak
Metropia (2009) dir. Tarik Saleh
Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009) dir. John Hyams
Ray Kurzweil is ridiculously smart, so when he prophesies about the merger of biological and non-biological systems, I feel like I should pay attention. But besides being a scary genius, he’s also obsessed with cheating death and obsession can often cloud the judgement of even the most brilliant among us. After watching Robery Barry Ptolemy’s by-the-numbers documentary about Kurzweil, I still can’t decide if the man has tipped past brilliant into delusional, but I do feel like he’s presenting us with a very possible future.
What’s creepy about Kurzweil’s technological extrapolations is his delivery. He doesn’t couch any of his ideas with words like “possibly” or “maybe.” Instead, he dryly asserts that the world we are driving towards is one where humans will merge with machines. That in itself isn’t too scary, but all of the futurists in the film seem to agree that it won’t take too long after this merger before the machines will have little use for us. Even as a documentary (that’s not too filled with drama,) Transcendent Man is more chilling than most dystopian man-machine futures put on film because the experts can do little more than shrug at the inevitable.
The Man-Machine: MORE MACHINE THAN MAN
Our Future Looks: BLEAK
Likelihood the film is right: VERY HIGH
Sleep Dealer is a tiny film that asks a lot of big questions. What if we could benefit from immigrant work without the immigrants? How much more might we exploit people in resource-thin parts of the world through networked technology? Is it ethical to sell your memories of others to complete strangers? Can we separate soldiers from warfare enough that they won’t be traumatized by killing? Honestly, the movie tackles more philosophical ground than it can cover and the plot gets a little heavy towards the end, but it does a fantastic job of getting those conversations started. Philosophers sometimes talk about the “absent referent,” a linguistic concept that explains how people can sometimes disconnect their actions from the impact those actions have on an object (we don’t call hamburgers “cow flesh sandwiches” for instance.) Sleep Dealer makes a compelling argument that technology might allow us to exploit people in new ways because the nature of virtual space means that we will never have to come into contact with those people.
We can already see this future coming through outsourced call center work and the intellectual sweatshops in eastern Europe where people publish junk content to the web all day to trick search engines into recommending sites for paying clients. It may be a stretch to think that we’ll one day see warehouses full of unskilled laborers controlling robots via virtual reality goggles, but the more subtle idea of consuming brain cycles remotely is very much a reality. I understand that the concept for Sleep Dealer was hatched over a decade before it was shot and that workers controlling robots is more cinematic than say workers sitting down and repeating mundane tasks like clicking on links, but the latter is where we are headed.
The Man-Machine: TECHNO-MIGRANTS & CYBORG SWEATSHOPS
Our Future Looks: PROBLEMATIC
Likelihood the film is right: HIGH
I said there would be no Terminator, but a Japanese pink film knock-off is fair game! To be fair, when I was at the video store I thought that I was renting Lady Terminator–an Indonesian film that is (after some research) probably less appropriate for this week’s theme, so I stuck with the Terminatrix. In the not-too-distant future, sex is outlawed Demolition Man-style so the Terminatrix travels back in time to de-sex the father of the future human sex resistance leader. The human resistance sends back a woman to protect him, and also to probably get inseminated.
While the merits of this soft-core Terminator knock-off don’t warrant much discussion, the ideas of sexbots and a potential future that is free from physical sex, do. Cherry 2000 already covered the sex cyborg concept well-enough two decades ago, and in one form or another we are certainly headed that way. The sex industry drives popular adoption of new technology (VHS, DVD, The Internet) so it’s no stretch to imagine that human-robot relations are going to get cooking as robots are used as sex devices rather than household maids. Then there’s this notion that with advances in robotics, virtual reality, and the integration of biological and non-biological systems, the messy and dangerous business of sex might become a thing of the past.
I don’t doubt it, frankly. In fact, maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing for humans to find other ways to connect with each other intimately. All of that mess of body parts can be fun, and it’s a central part of our experience as mammals–but we might be just as stimulated in other ways, especially as the need to procreate diminishes. We are nostalgic about losing the touch and smell and taste of experience, but we’ve also not really experienced a virtual space that could adequately simulate those sensations in the brain. We will, and then what?
The Man-Machine: CYBORG SEXBOTS
Our Future Looks: STERILE
Likelihood the film is right: MORE LIKELY THAN YOU MIGHT THINK (without the time travelling Terminatrix)
The Gene Generation
Ouch. When you are counting on a woman who got cut from Revenge of the Sith to carry your SyFy channel-quality futuristic film, you are starting from a place of weakness. Bai Ling is kind of interesting to look at, but she can’t deliver a line in English to make a moment of her dialog worth watching. The film’s reliance on TV-quality CGI is distracting at best, but very often just laughable. Still, I rented this one because buried in all of the film making detritus, there are some interesting ideas about the man-machine connection.
This film posits a world full of gene hackers who steal DNA and use a ‘gene transcoder’ as a mutagenic weapon. The line between technology and biology gets blurry here, but the basic idea of a device that allows a user to rearrange DNA sequences to fix problems in the body is a reasonable extrapolation from today’s genetics work. It seems unlikely that DNA could be manipulated in ways that turn a perfectly normal human into a mass of quivering tentacles with a consciousness, but maybe that’s just some artistic license.
The Man-Machine: GENETICALLY ENHANCED BIOMECHANOIDS
Our Future Looks: LIKE SOMEONE HAS A HARD-ON FOR BLADE RUNNER AND ALIEN
Likelihood the film is right: GENE HACKERS – YES, CYBERPUNK SOCIETY – THANKFULLY, NO
This anthology film from director Greg Pak assembles four short films about robots that aim to explore the details of human-robot connections. Dispensing with the chapter about a mom trying to complete her son’s robot toy collection, the other three pieces look at a world we might be approaching with the kind of obvious current-day sentimentality that you might expect. In “Robot Baby,” a couple gets an egg-shaped robot “practice baby” and they have to take care of it for a month to see if they are fit for the real thing. Kids do this in high school with actual eggs. Robots that help us practice parenting or CPR or other things that we shouldn’t practice on humans are probably going to be a reality… until the robots can think.
Another short revolves around robot office workers who are played by humans with the kind of stiffness that you might see in a Jr. High school play. The big ethical dilemma pops up when the robots want to be treated with some respect and when they want to leave their work for a minute to meet each other. The piece would have been more insightful had it focused on migrant workers or human interns in the same kind of situation. The fact that people in the workplace exploit their robot helpers isn’t too surprising.
The last piece in the film, “Clay,” depicts a world where people have the opportunity to upload their consciousness to a computer before they die to remain “alive” forever in one way or another. This was the most thought-provoking segment of the film, even if it painted the potential emotional and moral considerations of such a world with a very high contrast brush. At one point, the elderly man who needs to decide if he wants to be “scanned” to live on forever with his deceased (but virtually-alive) wife mentions that he doesn’t know if he deserves an eternal life of happiness that he didn’t earn. What in the hell does that mean? I understood the reluctance to give in to an eternal digital consciousness, but the man’s objections seemed ill-formed and overly sentimental.
The Man-Machine: ROBOT TRAINING DUMMIES, ROBOT WORKERS, DIGITAL IMMORTALITY
Our Future Looks: A LOT LIKE OUR PRESENT
Likelihood the film is right: OVERLY-SIMPLIFIED, BUT PROBABLY ACCURATE
In this Swedish animated film, oil is scarce and all of Europe is connected by a giant subway system. None of that seems too far off, actually. With a nod to Brazil, boring everyman Roger begins hearing voices and gets pulled into a corporate espionage scheme that opens his eyes to a whole world of control lurking under the surface. Metropia treads a lot of familiar ground but it does so with an unsettling animated style that might best be described as photo-real Zwinky avatars interacting in a film noir.
The box art for this one suggests human-shaped robots like mechs that are piloted by smaller humans sitting in the head. The film doesn’t really deliver on that concept literally, but it does work with the idea that people can be controlled or at least suggested to through nanotechnology hidden in shampoo. This is one of the least “machine” oriented entries in this week’s list, but it nevertheless takes a reasonable science-y starting point and carries it out to a logical, if paranoid conclusion. What if we could be controlled and monitored through shampoo?
The Man-Machine: RADIO-CONTROLLED HUMANS
Our Future Looks: DYSTOPIAN
Likelihood the film is right: NOT VERY
Universal Soldier: Regeneration
Let’s not pretend that the original Universal Soldier was a classic. In fact, watching Dolph Lundgren and JCVD mix it up in 1992 was one of the most unintentionally hilarious movie-going experiences I’ve ever had. I missed the 1999 sequel (on purpose) but when Ivan Drago and the Muscles from Brussels teamed up for another Universal Soldier film a full 17 years after the original, I figured it was worth checking out in the context of this week’s theme. So was it?
Well, yes and no. It was certainly no worse than the other direct-to-video cyborg junk I watched this week, but the video game quality script turned every non-action scene into something barely worth watching. In fact, this might be the most video game-like movie I’ve ever seen. Every plot point is delivered by a stiff NPC and the action sequences are full of game cliches like minibosses and expendable legions of soldiers who don’t know how to aim for the head. However, as absurd and obvious as the movie is, I dare say that the human-technology hybrid in Universal Soldier is more fact-based than almost everything else this week.
The “Super Soldier” concept isn’t simply the product of Marvel comics. Modern day soldiers can already be seen wearing cameras that feed images back to command, even if those cameras aren’t screwed directly into the troops’ heads. If the US has a history of playing with psych ops and behavior conditioning, you can bet others do too. We may not ever see the day where corpses are reanimated and programmed to be vicious killing machines, but I’m sure that there is someone somewhere in the Pentagon who thinks that’s not a bad idea.
The Man-Machine: TECHNOZOMBIE SOLDIERS
Our Future Looks: LIKE A CUT SCENE
Likelihood the film is right: WE WILL PROBABLY SEE SOME OF THIS SOON
Other Movie Weeks in 2011:
Enough is Enough Week
Beat Takeshi Week
French Action Week
Childhood Fascination Week
Australian Rules Week
Black History Week
Recent Westerns Week
Non-Godzilla Kaiju Week
Woody Allen Week
Secret Agent Week
Asian Action Week