Lucy arrived in cinemas this summer to much curiosity. With the exception of Michael Bay’s dystopic sci-fi action thriller The Island, Scarlett Johansson’s acting profile had risen mainly on the basis of her roles in the drama genre, with Lost in Translation and The Girl with the Pearl Earring, and collaborations with Woody Allen such as Match Point and Vicky Christina Barcelona being among the most significant (until, of course, she donned the black catsuit and spoke Russian as Natasha Romanoff in Iron Man 2, at which point she could been known for nothing but being a crazy person who wore a toilet seat around her neck and still would have been received as if she was Katherine Hepburn reborn).
So, her sudden shift to more hardcore science fiction, first in Under the Skin (a movie about which some raved, while others had about as much grasp on what was going on as their coffee tables did) and then most recently Lucy, came as something as a surprise.
But Johansson’s casting aside, there was another reason to be extremely interested in Lucy. This was that the movie was known to be about a woman who develops the ability to use more than just the 10% of the brain that the average human being is thought to use (although judging from things like Break.com’s weekly round-up of epic-fails, most of us are struggling to reach that), and moviegoers couldn’t wait to see what Luc Besson had done with the idea. Because if there is one thing that human beings are fascinated by, it’s other human beings, and especially any human being that is in some way different, or superior.
We are designed to be fascinated by it; evolution – i.e. human development – is literally in our DNA. What’s more is that the last twenty years or so has seen human progress in all areas of life speed up enormously, and more and more of the ideas that were once literally just fictional science are now becoming actually possible. The most obvious of these developments are of course in technology, such as smarter and smarter phones (with the exception of Siri, and texting’s auto “correct”), motion sensing and Oculus Rift. But even if it has been discovered that grilled cheese can be made by turning the toaster on its side, we’re not just talking life hacks here – there is something else on the horizon that will have far more impact than even the most complicated of technologies or the greatest advances in medicine could ever have. This is the idea of actual biological human upgrades – of changes being made to the human being itself that would improve it as a living creature. The official word is enhancement and the official name for the field that deals with this concept is transhumanism – or, as a lot of transhumanists (and their official magazine) like to use as a shorthand title, H+. Humanity…plus.
As a bioethicist, I spend a lot of time with transhumanist scientists who are intensely excited about the possibilities of enhancing the human being. They imagine giving it intellectual powers far beyond the current limits. They aim to make them able to instantly self-heal – or, even better – be entirely resistant to illness, damage or disease at all. They envisage being able to genetically eradicate the potential for any kind of abnormality, or frailty. Any of these ideas sound familiar? Of course they do – and this is why I am also extremely grateful that on top of my day job, I am also an avid movie-fan. Because whereas realistically, we are long way off being able to achieve these goals, cinema has never had to worry about this overrated thing called ‘reality,’ and has had a fine old time exploring – or just plain doing – the stuff that transhumanists still can only dream of. Basically, add our natural human fascination with our species to the filmmaking world’s wonderful attitude of ‘what the hell are boundaries??’ and you’ve got one of the most popular movie themes known to man.
The aim of this list is to look at some of these movies that have transhumanism as their theme, and to look at how that theme was handled; i.e. whether it was presented in any sort of believable way, or whether the response was more likely to be “sorry, but what the F—K?” (which is quite often literally the response that some transhumanist academics have towards each others’ ideas. I am not even joking).