Since the beginning of the century, American films have explored stories of the apocalypse as commentary on our own modern challenges. Stories of the horrors science can create when man tries to play God lurk beneath the most popular zombie shows and in the cool futuristic sci-fi of super humans. These stories are equal parts inspiration and warning–a look over the cliff over science to the abyss of possibility that lies ahead of us. These stories, in turn, look into us, into our longing to be stronger, more powerful and to live forever.
In Apocalyptic America, we’ve been looking at the questions posed to us by the modern world that we live in–advances in science, new technologies and a host of problems caused by the postindustrial human condition–and the answers film gives us. Apocalyptic movies allow us to seen through a glass darkly at a world that awaits us as a consequence of our now. So it is with movies about humans tinkering with the laws of nature.
Some things that might get your sci-fi imagination going:
If you could use science to modify your body, would you? If so, how would you modify your body?
Would you diet or using science to make you super shapely or strong?
Would you choose the sex of your future baby? Or ensure their special skills?
Would you modify your body to survive a disease or environmental crisis?
Before you say you would never alter your body, think instead about modification on a continuum from small changes like piercing your ears or wearing glasses all the way to the more extreme iterations like lizard man or gene therapy. As futuristic as some modification technology is, altering the body is nothing new. How acceptable these procedures are seems to connect to how much what they provide is “needed” according to cultural conventions and norms.
Medical Augmentations: Altering or adding to the body to compensate for disease or deformity is most acceptable with widespread support for advances.
Cosmetic modification: altering the body to improve appearance according to common beauty conventions is somewhat acceptable, especially if you meet the conventions conventionally. The more extreme the augmentation, the more unacceptable it becomes.
Genetic modification: Altering genes to change the structure of the body or object is controversial whether you are a tomato or a zygote. Genetically modified fruit–sometimes called Franken fruit–is blamed for a host of problems for humans and their environment, but also ubiquitous in our grocery stores. Modifying human embryos is illegal–today.
The gene-ie (ha! I got jokes in writing!) is already out of the bottle. Like our exploration into artificial intelligence and technology, the question is really no longer would we or wouldn’t we, but to what degree should we. Sadly, ethics around biological advances in science are far behind the technology.
Films approach a few of the ways that changes in human engineering could play out in our culture, affecting power, capital, and social relationships. Many movies prior to 2000 focused on the disastrous consequences of genes gone bad. Human-made monsters because of the lack of control of genetic processes.
As we move into the era of apocalyptic dread the stories shift a bit. As humans become more skilled at making changes to nature and potentially humans, we explore—and fear—the possibilities of what we might create. Here are some examples and the questions they ask
If we make humans, what rights do they have?
Human cloning hits new levels of skill—and for new reasons in this upbeat thriller. If we could make people, would we grant them the same inalienable rights we claim are for all? Note: we do have a hard time ensuring humans rights for all humans now a days. On the plus side, so far we have no structure for identifying babies born using genetic enhancements or fertility treatments.
How would capitalism manage the availability of advances in health tech?
Repo Men is the story of a world where people can buy organs to replace failing ones. Like a new car, if you don’t pay, the corporation sends someone to retrieve your organs. Healthcare costs are already a leading cause of bankruptcy. How much would a heart cost? Probably not less than Wheelock.
What would we do with Superhumans?
A host of movies like Lucy and Limitless and, of course, Xmen find ways to hack the human brain to open up our full potential. Oddly, the movie never ends with a world peace accord. Overwhelmingly advances in humans are coopted to earn capital or fight battles. How culturally hegemonic.
The ideas about what it means to be human and how easily we can lose all that we think we know is nothing new to your COM250 experience, Apocalyptic Americans–these are the common questions that underpin lots of Apocalyptic movies, and, truth be told, they underpin humanity’s grand story as well. The questions about how to navigate the boundaries of power, class and privilege in an era of evolved humanity are also the same questions about how to restructure society in the wake of wokeness that we have seen all semester. Just as we can’t imagine an end without us, robots without us, so we can’t imagine a new breed of super-humans without us either.
So what’s new in human engineering? Is there truth hiding inside these movies or is this boogie man solely in the mind of Hollywood?
Paying a surgeon to give you the body of your dreams becomes more popular every year–the number of procedures is up in 2015. Cosmetic augmentation is common with more than 15 million cosmetic procedures performed last year. The most common procedures are botox, fillers, and chemical peels–all aimed to turn back the hand of time. Speaking of turning back, butt implants continue to be one of the fastest growing invasive procedures. Yeah, Kim!
From 3d printing new limbs to growing new organs in a lab, medical science is moving ahead by leaps and bounds. Pop star Viktoria Modesta and her fantastic light up leg shows how transformative new technology can be in redefining ability. Advances in medical technology will increase your lifespan, but many ethical questions—including who can afford it—abound.
Since the human genome was first mapped in 2003, our knowledge of the role genes play in making you you has expanded rapidly. If we can manipulate the genes of fruit to make the fruit we desire, might similar techniques be used to create the children we desire?
All of these futures before us are rife with the kind of possibilities that come with consequences we can only dream of. Far more serious than a few butt implants, the implications of all this tinkering are beyond even Hollywood’s wild mind. The challenges couldn’t be more real. Just a few months ago a US based organization, endorsed by over 150 experts int he field called for a moratorium on human genetic modification, warning that once we begin, the irreversible process can have implications beyond the boundary of any of these movies. Truth, it seems remains stranger than fiction.
I teach a course called Apocalyptic America where we explore film and TV about the end of the world and find out what they tell us about the challenges of our own world. The above is a makeup blog lecture (a blecture?) from a recent class. If you made it this far, you get an A for the day.