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22 March, 2018

Cybernetic Cinema: Merging Man, Machine, and Movies

When you hear the term cybernetics, you likely think of some science-fiction melding of man and machine. Although cybernetics has many definitions dating back many decades, this image is its most popular and enduring. As science and technology continue to expand, these concepts once thought fantastical are inching closer to becoming a startling reality. You may one day be able to replace a failing organ or damaged limb with a fully electronic device that functions as part of your biological system. While there have been some experimental breakthroughs in recent years, let’s dig deep into the sci-fi movie genre for a look at the possible future of cybernetics.

RoboCop (1987)

Before it morphed into a subpar film franchise, RoboCop was released in 1987 as a biting action satire that skewered capitalism, privatization, corporate greed, media influence, authoritarianism, and gentrification. This clever blockbuster was also based on familiar science fiction themes dealing with cybernetics, transhumanism, identity, and human nature. In a near-future dystopian Detroit, Michigan, a police officer is brutally killed by gangsters while out on patrol. As part of a new pilot project, he is brought back to life to continue his career, but only after his memories have seemingly been erased and most of his damaged body discarded in favor of cybernetics wired to his functional human brain. Although the film is disguised as an ultraviolent blow ’em up, RoboCop serves as an examination of what it might mean to become more than human.

Repo Men (2010)

The central conceit of this dark sci-fi tale is that by the year 2025, technology has advanced to the point that people can buy bio-mechanical artificial organs on credit to replace their ailing natural organs. If a customer can’t keep up with the payments, the greedy corporation that sells these “artiforgs” assigns agents known as “repo men” to forcibly repossess the artificial organ in question, leaving the distressed customer to die. When one of these repo men ends up being electrocuted while on the job, he wakes up to discover that his heart has been replaced with an artiforg. He soon finds himself on the other side of the fence when he can’t bring himself to perform his duties any longer and defaults on his payment. Although the film hasn’t been treated kindly on Rotten Tomatoes, Repo Men attempts to probe some of the ethical dilemmas posed by the future of cybernetics. If you’re interested in furthering the discussion, visit http://humanparagon.com/cybernetics/  for more on cybernetic enhancements.

Death Watch (1980)

In an indeterminate future that looks a lot like 1980, medical advancements have all but eliminated the fear of dying from disease or illness. After receiving a terminal diagnosis, a woman is bombarded by the media and turned into an instant celebrity against her wishes. When she runs away from a television company that wants to film her final days for a reality show, she is helped by a man who, unbeknownst to her, works for the TV studio. She also doesn’t know that her new friend has had cameras and transmitters implanted in his eyes during an experimental surgery, allowing him to broadcast the events of her life. As a side effect of the implants, he must keep his eyes open at all times or risk going blind if exposed to extended darkness. Incredibly, Death Watch not only foretold the insanity of so-called reality television, but the idea of having an eyeball camera actually became reality 30 years later. A filmmaker who lost the sight in one eye years earlier elected to surgically remove his sightless eye and install a digital camera in the empty socket, complete with transmitter so he can record everything he sees – or doesn’t see.

The Terminal Man (1974)

Based on the 1972 book by Michael Crichton, this speculative sci-fi piece tells the story of a brilliant computer scientist who suffers from blackouts due to epileptic seizures. During these blackouts, he commits violent acts that he doesn’t recall upon awakening. To curb these psychotic episodes, he undergoes an experimental procedure to implant electrodes in his brain that will prevent him from having seizures by issuing an electrical impulse. Unfortunately, once his brain becomes addicted to the pleasurable feeling the impulses can generate, his seizures occur more frequently and risk trapping him in a permanent psychotic blackout. The Terminal Man is another hidden gem and a prescient depiction of the pros and cons of technology to come.