I’ve always loved the concepts and themes of cyberpunk and transhumanist stories. Many of my favorite movies as a teenager followed these themes, most notably The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell (the anime, not the recent Hollywood abomination). Unfortunately what I loved most about cyberpunk and transhumanist stories were often either extremely minor plot points, or not touched on at all. Rather than focusing on the personal implications of such concepts, most stories that touch on these subjects revolve around bettering the world.
Cyberpunk and transhumanist stories both feature worlds where advanced technological achievements have brought about artificial intelligence and cybernetics. The biggest differences in the two genres tend to be in the underlying message the story is trying to tell. Cyberpunk usually focuses on a breakdown and rebuilding of a dystopian society. By comparison, transhumanism tends to focus on a more utopian mindset. Of course this is overly simplifying things, and you might argue that cyberpunk is a subset of transhumanism.
Examples of recent transhumanist movies include Transcendence, Lucy, and to a lesser extent Limitless. In each of these movies, technology is used to evolve the human body and mind beyond what would be normally considered natural. Transcendence does this by having the main character upload his consciousness into a computer. Lucy and Limitless are both based on the ridiculous notion of us using only 10% of our brains, and explore would happen if we unlocked the remaining 90%. Both Transcendence and Lucy feature the main character transcending their physical limitations to the point that they are effectively “everywhere” and use their newfound knowledge and understanding of the universe in an attempt to better society. Limitless is similar in concept to Lucy, but the main character instead is basically a selfish prick using his newfound mental capacity to gain fame and fortune, which in my opinion makes it far less transhumanist in theory despite the similar concepts.
Recent cyberpunk movies include Alita: Battle Angel, Blade Runner 2049, and Elysium. Alita is about a young cyborg girl that is rebuilt but has no memories of her past or who she is. The story follows her rediscovering the world and its history as she uncovers clues to her past and regains her memories. Blade Runner 2049 follows its predecessor in a world where “replicants” (basically cyborgs) are indistinguishable from humans and “blade runners” are hired to hunt down and “retire” (kill) rogue replicants. Elysium is about the dichotomy between the residents of a space colony and Earth. The rich and powerful live on the space colony Elysium where they have the technology to basically fix all of humanity’s medical problems, and everyone else lives on Earth suffering from a complete lack of the same medical care.
As much as I love these subgenres of science fiction, my biggest complaint with them is that they tend to focus more on the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) aspects of the world, more than the liberal arts. There are exceptions to this rule, especially in the case of cyberpunk stories that often deal with societies where there are extreme gaps between the rich and poor, but those themes usually take a backseat to the technological aspects of the story that are much more prevalent. The biggest use of liberal arts in cyberpunk and transhumanist stories often question what it means to be human, and the intersection between human and machine.
I absolutely love stories that dive deep into what it means to be human. Movies that blur the line between fiction and reality, question what reality is, question the differences between human and artificial intelligence, and explore the human psyche as a whole are, in my opinion, some of the most interesting cinematic experiences. In cyberpunk and transhumanist stories, these themes are usually very broad in their focus despite following a single character or two who are affected by the technological advances of the world. Rarely is the viewer meant to question the implications of technology as they relate to the individual characters, but rather to society as a whole. The characters are simply a vessel that allows the overarching theme to be explored.
What I want to see, specifically, are more stories that relate to technology being used to better the life of an individual. Sure, in Elysium the story mostly follows Matt Damon’s character as he saves a particular young girl from leukemia, but the implications of his actions help the entire population of Earth, and that is the intended takeaway for the audience. Then there’s Limitless, which as I’ve already mentioned is more about the main character gaining fame and fortune through his magnified mental capabilities. While it does explore how technology is helping the main character, it’s such a shallow exploration. It doesn’t explore the main character as a person, instead focusing on the material benefits of the technology.
Alita, however, comes so close to exploring the themes that I want to see more than anything. What follows are spoilers for the movie, but that being said there is honestly not much about Alita to be spoiled. I would compare it to a superhero origin story more than your typical cyberpunk and transhumanist story. The few twists and turns that would usually be considered spoilers, are often spoiled by the movie itself minutes after the hint that there might be something to be spoiled. There’s no build up to anything other than Alita discovering her full potential at the end of the film.
Alita is based in typical cyberpunk setting where the rich and powerful live in a supposed paradise, while all the less fortunate live in a rough and struggling society. The movie opens with a man in a trench coat discovering a decapitated cyborg with a fully intact brain in a junkyard. He returns to his home, where it’s revealed that he’s a doctor that repairs cyborgs and cybernetic enhancements on the citizens of the city. The decapitated cyborg is rebuilt, and wakes up without any memories about herself or the world around her. The doctor names her Alita after his deceased daughter, and not long later it’s revealed that the body Alita now possesses was built for the daughter.
There’s an amazing moment of the movie, where Alita comments on how wrong and unfamiliar her body feels. We find out that Alita is far more technologically advanced than typical cyborgs. Her heart, which powers her body, is far more powerful than needed for the primitive technology that the body she was given. Eventually she discovers the body she was meant for, and she begs the doctor to install her in it, but he refuses.
Of course that doesn’t last long, as Alita gets into a fight that effectively destroys the body she was given beyond repair, and the doctor has no choice but to use the one she found. When the surgery is complete and the new body powers on, it immediately starts to reshape to her internal perception of what she should look like. When she wakes up, she finds herself not only far more powerful, but also more in control of her body.
The few moments of the movie that explore Alita’s experience with the physical body she inhabits spoke to me in a way that I never thought a cyberpunk superhero origin story could. I found myself relating to Alita in a way that few of the moviegoing public could. I spent over thirty years of my life in a body that didn’t feel like mine. It’s an experience that is impossible to properly describe, but somehow Alita pulled it off beautifully.
In the movie, this experience of being in an unnatural body is depicted as a general clumsiness and lack of speed and agility. As the story progresses, Alita does find herself more comfortable with the body she was given, and she does some amazing things, but she’s being held back. When she discovers her true body and unlocks her full potential, she not only becomes more physically capable, but she begins to find herself as a person as well.
Similarly to Alita, pre-transition my body always felt wrong to me. I wrote off this wrongness as a combination of simply being clumsy, unathletic, and lacking in depth perception. I assumed that everyone felt the same kind of disconnect with their body, and it just took practice and determination to overcome. Unfortunately I lacked the interest in the physical betterment of myself, as well as the determination, to attempt to overcome anything.
As I got older this feeling of wrongness began to change. It wasn’t just about my lack of athletic prowess, but rather the physical characteristics of my body that I wasn’t happy with. I wrote all of this off as just what kids go through in puberty. I couldn’t have told you what about my body that I wasn’t happy with. At best it was just a general dislike of everything. I thought that puberty would “fix” me, and that when the changes of puberty were over I’d be a changed person. Sure, I was changed, but the wrongness never went away.
The best that I can compare this feeling of wrongness to is wearing a pair of gloves. You don’t lose all feeling in your hands and fingers when you put on a pair of gloves. Effectively the glove is your hand, but at the same time it isn’t. You still experience some form of the sense of touch, but everything is dulled. Your movements aren’t exactly hindered, but you lose some dexterity and preciseness that you’d normally have. The longer you wear a pair of gloves for, the more natural it begins to feel, and the less you really notice that you’re wearing them, but that doesn’t bring back the natural feeling of your hands and fingers.
I’m now approaching two years of hormone therapy, and it is amazing how different I feel. My relationship with my body has changed drastically. For the first time in my life, the body that I inhabit feels like it’s mine. I am comfortable with myself in a way that I never thought possible. There’s a connection to my physical body that I didn’t have before. The wrongness isn’t completely gone, but it’s waning.
There are still aspects of my body that I’m not happy with. I truly believe that everyone has some form of dislike regarding their body, but the feeling of unhappiness that I now experience is notably different. It isn’t a physical feeling, but more a vague wish for change. My body doesn’t feel wrong so much as I wish that it conformed to a more societal expectation of beauty and femininity.
An interesting aspect to feeling more like my body is my own, and the wrongness beginning to disappear, is that I am more willing to take my appearance into my own hands. I was never really drawn to makeup and hair care and fashion pre-transition. There didn’t seem to be much point, because no matter what I did, I still didn’t feel comfortable in my own body. Even when I’d experiment with crossdressing, like I did the Halloween before my transition, it didn’t feel right to me. There was definitely an aspect of gender euphoria from the experience, but my body didn’t fit the clothes, and it still didn’t feel natural. I took great pleasure in the feeling of wearing those clothes, but the disconnect between my body and the feminine appearance I was attempting to emulate only made the wrongness feel more pronounced.
A year into my transition I got my first tattoo. I talked a lot about the meaning and experience behind it already, but there’s something else to getting a tattoo that I didn’t touch on at the time. As much as hormone therapy is medically correcting the wrongness, the act of taking hormones is also an act of taking control of my own body. There is a defiance in it, and that feeling is only more pronounced when it comes to tattoos. Since that first tattoo I’ve gotten two more, and they both mean just as much to me as the very first.
I’ve also started wearing makeup, sometimes, and paying attention to my hair. Feeling comfortable with my body has also given me the self esteem to begin to think of everything else that goes with being “feminine” as far as society is concerned. I no longer feel like an imposter, and my comfort in makeup, hair, and fashion is an extension of that.
These are the feelings that I want to see more explored through cyberpunk and transhumanist stories. What better way to show the masses what it is like to be uncomfortable in your own skin, than to tell stories of characters that cybernetically enhance their mind and bodies?