Since the late 1990s, when I first heard about the term, I have identified myself as a transhumanist. It described an attitude I’d long owned but had not fully articulated; nor had I realized until then that there were a good many others who shared that position. It was a happy discovery.
Before then, the formation of my personal but unnamed transhumanist philosophy was nurtured mainly through reading books, both fiction and non-fiction, and also by watching movies. I’ve been an avid cinephile for most of my life, and have seen thousands of films, nearly all them in a theater on the big screen where they can best be enjoyed.
Among the many movies I love are several that have something important to say about our potential transhumanist future. Listed below are my top ten.
For this article, I’ve chosen what I consider to be the best-made films that comment on H+ themes. Note that my ranking is not based on whether these movies offer a sympathetic or an antagonistic portrayal of the transhuman-influenced future, but only on how good they are as cinema.
10. Avatar 3D (2009)
Cameron’s latest blockbuster is far from a great movie, with its shabby plot, cardboard characters, and questionable noble savage mythology, but on a big screen in 3D it is undeniably an amazing futuristic experience. Along the way, it at least introduces compelling ideas about simulated reality to the audience, even if its approach to them is rather juvenile.
9. Gattaca (1997)
I don’t really consider this one a great movie either, but because it deals with the impacts of transhuman technologies on society and culture in a mostly believable and accessible way, and because it raised important issues perhaps for the first time for a lot of viewers, it seems worthy of making this list.
8. The Terminator (1984)
James Cameron again, but earlier, darker, and better. And again, for many people, this was the first time they’d been asked to think about the challenge of cyborgs becoming stronger than humans and waging war against them. Not to mention time travel. Sure, there were other movies and TV shows — and plenty of science fiction novels — that had dealt with these ideas before, but none made as visceral an impact on the modern psyche as did this one. Its influence is still felt strongly today.
7. The Matrix (1999)
Probably only a few thousand people in the world have ever read, or even heard of, Nick Bostrom’s confounding Simulation Argument. But tens of millions of people have watched this movie and thus have learned something about the concept. Which pill would you take?
6. WALL-E (2008)
This may not be the best animated SF movie ever made — some would argue for Ghost in the Shell or maybe even Spirited Away — but it certainly reached more people with its serious H+ themes than did any of the others. What is progress? What is human? Can robots feel? These are not the kinds of questions that most cartoons will raise.
5. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1931)
Among the movies I’ve listed here, this is the one that probably the fewest of our readers have seen. That’s a shame, because it is truly a great film and it also addresses important issues for transhumanists to consider. What makes up the human personality? How do we define “good” and “evil” and who gets to choose the accepted definition?
4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
In my opinion as a cineaste, this is the best movie made, of any genre, thus far in the 21st century. And it’s also an essential film for those who are interested in the questions of neuroethics. We may not be far away from having technologies that can enable the precise manipulation of memories, and, by extension, of personality. What a treat when a wonderfully entertaining movie also can engage the viewer in a challenging exploration of transhumanist ethics.
3. Brazil (1985)
Total movie magic. It’s an amazing experience to sit inside in a theater and be taken to another world, to a place that seems eerily familiar and yet frighteningly strange, to a future that is so much like today that we wish we could wake up from the nightmare that is now. I once asked Terry Gilliam how it felt to know that he had essentially made a documentary about the impacts of the Bush/Cheney administration two decades in advance. He could only laugh and agree with me. And although most of the technology depicted in this film is steampunk, not H+, it should provide a wake-up call for us to be aware that the struggle for political power and social control is ever present, and that if we fail to pay attention, our dreams of techno-transcendence may be snatched away from us just when they seem within our grasp.
2. Metropolis (1927)
This is the grandfather of all science fiction movies, and it still is one of the best ever. (A Trip to the Moon, from 1902 by Georges Méliès, would be the great-grandfather, but it’s more goofy than profound.) In making Metropolis, the great director Fritz Lang used all the resources of the then world-class UFA studio in Berlin — nearly bankrupting it in the process — and achieved effects that have never been surpassed. See it on the big screen, preferably in the most recent restoration, and be blown away.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
You knew we would end up here, didn’t you? Where else but with a movie that not only is central to the concerns of transhumanists, but also is among the top ten or twenty movies ever made, of any kind. First to impress is its amazingly realistic depictions of life in space, whether on the shuttle — that flight attendant who walks upside down! — the space station, or the flight to Jupiter. And no film has ever depicted with such poignancy the troubled relationship between sentient AI and its human masters. Then comes the astonishing climax — the famous Stargate sequence — which I regard as Clarke’s and Kubrick’s attempt to portray, in cinematic terms, the human experience of a technological Singularity. Remember, this is decades before Vinge wrote his seminal essay, though in 1965 I.J. Good had first described the possibility of an “intelligence explosion,” which likely influenced the filmmakers. Someday, perhaps, another even better movie will be made about the dreams/nightmares of transhumanists, but for now, this one is the pinnacle.
Mike Treder, currently Managing Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, was a founding board member of the World Transhumanist Association (now Humanity+).