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‘What seems to be the problem?’ – Hollywood’s anti-immortality
B. J. Murphy   Sep 9, 2013  

It’s no secret that Hollywood is known for its anti-technology films, stirring fear of a supposed robot-led apocalypse – ranging from The Matrix, the Terminator series, I Robot, THX 1138, Metropolis, etc. etc. So little number of films have been done with an opposite direction in the storyline, i.e. Robot & Frank, A.I., Short Circuit.

This article is a copy of an edited version found in the newly published e-book Longevitize!: Essays on the Science, Philosophy & Politics of Longevity, titled "Anti-Immortalist Cinema, which can be found here.


Dr. Eldon Tyrell: I’m surprised you didn’t come sooner.
Roy Batty: It’s not an easy thing to meet your maker.
Tyrell: What can he do for you?
Roy: Can the maker repair what he makes?
Tyrell: Would you like to be modified?
Roy: Had in mind something a little more radical.
Tyrell: What? What seems to be the problem?
Roy: Death.

But then what role does Hollywood play in answering the question of immortality?

Blade Runner

By far one of the most famous sci-fi films ever to be developed, to which the core question of immortality flooded its storyline, was Blade Runner. Its protagonist, Rick Deckard (starring Harrison Ford), was a retired police officer in 2019 – also known as a “Blade Runner” – who finds himself back on a job, set out to locate and destroy (in the film they called it “retire”) bio-engineered sentient beings known as replicants, whose leader went by the name Roy Batty (starring Rutger Hauer).

For those of us who consider ourselves Transhumanists, Immortalists, etc. would surely understand Roy’s concerns of death. It was, after all, the entire basis of his mission: to conquer a fixed-death and live freely. Unfortunately, though, Roy’s character and ambitions were deemed abhorrent by the film’s producers and thus needed to die.

In doing so, a fight between Deckard and Roy ensues. In what appears to be a fight which Roy could’ve easily won, he spares Deckard’s life in order to provide his tidbit of wisdom before his life runs out:

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those…moments will be lost in time, like tears…in rain. Time to die.”

A sad moment, indeed. Though not just for Roy, given the failure in his quest for immortality, but for everyone – Humans and replicants alike – whose life’s mission is in destroying their greatest foe: Death!

Renaissance

In the black and white animated French film Renaissance, arguably one of the most stunning animated films to come out in the 21st century, a police captain, Barthélémy Karas, is working on a case dealing with the disappearance of a scientist named Ilona Tasuiev, who worked for this megacorporation known as Avalon.

To make a long story short, Karas discovers that Ilona was kidnapped by a Dr. Jonas Muller, a former Avalon scientist who’s been trying to find a cure for progeria that his younger brother’s suffering from. Dr. Muller eventually reveals to Karas that Ilona had discovered the secret to eternal life and that Avalon was set in withholding this monumental discovery from the general populace. Ergo, Dr. Muller’s reason for kidnapping Ilona.

To add a twist in this already confusing film, Dr. Muller is eventually revealed to be his younger brother who was suffering from progeria. Only now he’s immortal, trapped in an old man’s body. The obvious absurdity here being that, while immortality is discovered, the film’s producers make it out to be a torturous trap for the aging with no death to relieve Dr. Muller from.

When Karas finally finds Ilona, he attempts at giving her a fake passport so that she can leave everything behind and start a whole new life. Instead Ilona tells Karas that she’d rather live forever, resulting in Karas shooting and killing her.

So who’re the bad guys in this film? Ironically – albeit hardly surprising – those sought for immortality are eventually deemed as the film’s antagonists.

Does it make it anymore absurd that on the film’s poster on IMDB its tagline says “Live Forever or Die Trying”?

The Fountain

And then there’s the 2006 film The Fountain, starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz. In the film, again arguably another masterpiece in film and storyline production, Tommy Creo (Hugh Jackman) is losing his wife Izzi Creo (Rachel Weisz) to cancer. Like any loving husband would, he’s dedicated his life in discovering a cure in order to save her before her imminent death.

During the film, Izzi begins writing a story similar to her own life, though set during the 16th century inquisition. Her husband Tommy becomes conquistador Tomás Verde and her, Queen Isabella, to which Tomás is set out in discovering the Tree of Life for her.

Though, due to her declining health, she leaves the story to Tommy to finish. Leaving Izzi outside to gaze at the cosmos, imagining that her and Tommy will eventually meet again. This gives way to another side story, this time with astronaut Tom in 2500, trapped inside a biosphere containing the Tree of Life.

Oddly enough, though, in each three separate plots, Tommy/ Tomás/Tom is unable to discover, nor extract, immortality for his wife/love affair/whatever to benefit from.

In the end, as the film’s director Darren Aronofsky states, “ultimately the film is about coming to terms with your own death.

I’ll tell you what the problem is!

So what is the problem here? The problem is Hollywood’s anti-immortality fixation! For the life of me (no pun intended) I cannot even think of a single film that was produced with a storyline that was favorable toward the quest for immortality.

Any film that comes out with a big budget that deals with questions of life and death, death always comes out victorious in the end. It spits in the face of every living species on this planet and condemns them to a limited life with an eventual death not long after. This is a big problem.

It begs the question – particularly to those of us trying to educate society on the importance of Transhumanism and Immortalism – how are we to convince the masses that immortality is a good thing when the films they watch and submerge themselves with preaches the contrary?

Perhaps the creation of a pro-Transhumanism, pro-Immortalism films studio? Maybe an outreach campaign to celebrities, script writers, and movie directors to convince them on why they should adapt our ideals within their storylines? Honestly, I have no idea where to start. Which is why I feel it’s important we have this type of discussion and begin addressing the issue in a friendly, democratic way.

Any ideas?

_________

*ed. Note: Understand that my assessment of “Hollywood” isn’t actually on Hollywood in general. Hollywood here is being used as a symbol of the film industry, whether the film was actually done in Hollywood, or independently, or via foreign film industries.

B.J. Murphy is a Technoprogressive Transhumanist activist within the East Coast region of the U.S. He's worked with the asteroid mining company Planetary Resources as a member of their Planetary Community Vanguard, helping campaign funding for the ARKYD 100 Space Telescope, an open-source means of space exploration. He is a Writer, Editor, and Social Media Manager for SeriousWonder.com and runs his own blog called The Proactionary Transhumanist. He's a co-author of both Longevitize!: Essays on the Science, Philosophy & Politics of Longevity and The Future of Business: Critical Insights On a Rapidly Changing World From 60 Futurists.



COMMENTS

“Any ideas?”

Hollywood (and you were right to include the clarification,
“Understand that my assessment of
‘Hollywood’ isn’t actually on Hollywood in general.
Hollywood here is being used as a symbol of the
film industry, whether the film was actually done
in Hollywood, or independently, or via foreign
film industries”)
is following the wishes of a largely uneducated public. A public that thinks immortality is either a futile dream or a religious ideal: spiritual afterlife. Many believe they live through their children after their own deaths—their children live on after their parents’ deaths to carry on families’ genetic futures; families’ “culture”; and even some immortality through heirlooms.
So, again, Hollywood is basically only giving its customers what they want. Remember how in the first ‘Terminator’ (and many other films) the heroine is pregnant by way of a brief affair before the hero is gone. The to-be-born child will ultimately carry on the genes, and presumably courage, of the departed father.

—————————
Haven’t lived outside Middle America in many years so do not know what it is like outside the region. But here—which includes the South—viewers do not have much use for non-religious themes concerning immortality. And ‘viewers’ are customers to Hollywood. A Mid American movie-goer will read the first few sentences of a review of a SF film and then go to a Mel Gibson film about Christ, or somesuch. Plus (as I’ve written many times) nostalgia plays a part as well and this is linked with religion. Countless films deal with the past. ‘Titanic’, a high grossing flick about the 1912 martime disaster. ‘Gone With the Wind’ was produced in the late 1930s but was set in the 1860s. ‘Citizen Kane’, another well-respected and lucrative film made at the end of the ‘30s, concerned the William Hearst of previous decades (stretching back to him losing his sled ‘Rosebud’ as a child in the 19th century). Mentioned Mel Gibson’s film about Christ above: if Jesus was born circa 4 BCE, then His crucifixion occurred about 29 CE. Thus we have a film more or less aiming for nostalgia concerning 1,983 yrs ago.
Please do not overestimate the modernity of 21st century film-goers. They may live physically in the 21st century yet their minds are directed towards a simpler past when black was black white was white, fewer shades of grey existed. It is clinically fascinating to observe how Mid America reacts. The old-fashioned want it all, Middle America wants the modern world’s gadgets and medical treatments/operations albeit it also wants the past.
The past not delinked from the present is what it amounts to. IMO such is an impossibly ambitious outlook.. religion in fact; an outlook, a worldview as ambitious as this can only be described as religious. To hold onto the past and present simultaneously while wanting the material and physical benefits from the future (the future influences the present due to present expectations) is as ambitious as anything in SF.
————————
Let’s not mince words: the old fashioned are overly-ambitious; grandiose—they want the present to be as the past and the future to be as the present. To top it off they want nature to be altered yet still somehow remain as the constant backdrop of God’s Green Earth. What they need are time machines.
Now, many of us will take the good with the bad; but will it play in Peoria? Or if you live in Europe, will it play in Vienna? Because one legitimate reason for rubes rejecting the future exists: hyper-longevity may v. well help the bad guys. And all Peoria has to do is visit Mexico or Russia to see the bad guys in action right up close-like. This is an aside, yet it matters in comprehending how they think.

To return to topic: it is mistaken to be super-cynical, to write ‘Hollywood’ is exclusively about profit. Plus when profit is paramount, it can and is sometimes used to finance more sophisticated films (A well-known example is Elvis’ beach-party films having financed more artistic movies). However there are all sorts of moviegoers; let’s categorise them here as lowbrow, middlebrow; highbrow. Hollywood compromises on artistic quality to please all three. The over-the-top violence in countless films is to cater to low and middlebrows who want violence in their flicks—as you know, this includes SF and its guns zapping both good and wicked characters.
In other words, the lowest common denominator is to be pleased along with the highest—the demand is for sensationalistic entertainment, the supply is what Hollywood offers. If art suffers in service of entertainment, it is the nature of the ever-present maddening crowd who has the numbers and the money to obtain low-middlebrow entertainment.
The following is anecdotal, however it illustrates the mentality: when I saw ‘Matrix’, the audience was more interested in sensationalistic negative aspects of the film; its cerebral content appeared to pass them by.

A lot of this comes from the original horror story ‘Frankenstein’ whose popularity was rapid and world-wide. It was written at a time when most people were extremely religious/conservative and the theme of ‘knowledge Man was not meant to know’ was a common idea in speculative literature.

Then the story was picked up by Universal Movies in the early 20th century and then when it seemed it might be fading, Hammer films in Britain brought it back to life (ironic in a way) with another world-wide successful series of movies. Add to that Dracula & assorted vampires, the Borg, Cybermen and various misbegotten immortals of the ‘Outer Limits’, ‘Out of the Unknown’, Star Trek’, ‘Dr Who’ and ‘The Twilight Zone’ and an audience who often don’t seem to be able to tell the difference between fact and fiction and you end up with a lot of people who, if not actually terrified of the idea of immortality, have at least some misgivings about it (those who have read previous posts of mine know that I count myself among the latter).

Nevertheless I agree that there is too much emphasis on the possible downside (and not just in the movies). The possibility of immortality ending in an eternal joyful existence and not some hellish eternity doesn’t get much if any, airtime. The main reason for that is that humans want stories that show the heroes struggling with difficulties so the tendency to make immortality a misfortune is the default mode.

The only way this tendency is going to be counteracted is if writers try to write stories where immortality is presented in a more positive way. As it happens i am in the process of completing a trilogy of novels where the ending is a kind of upbeat immortality (albeit after a lot of struggle).

But I am only one writer; you need a kind of literary tendency flowing in the same direction and against the well-established 150 odd-year-old Frankenstein meme you’ve got your work cut out for you.

If I did not have a fetish for documentation, then I could answer this question more definitively.

A lot of it has to do with the relationship of Hollywood, and specific schools of philosophy (Continental Post-Modernism, mostly…. Specifically a few from the Post-WWII schools surrounding Hannah Arendt, Heidegger, Hegel, Gunter Anders, and others who were HIGHLY CRITICAL of technology in general).

They all employ the Trope: Playing God.

Either that or one of the many iterations of it (There are things man was not meant to know, Creating Life is Bad, etc.) - These are all real tropes, that you can look up and see how they are used in the Entertainment Industry.

But, the philosophies behind them were formulated in post-WWII to deal with the atrocities of the Nazis, and many philosophers, facing the unimaginable evilness of what had just happened (never mind that it was HARDLY the FIRST TIME that anyone had ever done that sort of thing - they just didn’t have mechanized societies to help them carry it out), couldn’t comprehend that the humans doing it were solely to blame, and instead blamed it upon the technology (the newly created Atomic Bomb also drove them more than a little out of their minds).

As others have pointed out, this sort of thinking does have its origins in the Frankenstein Myth (hardly the first instance of the “Man was not meant to know these things).

In fact, you can read up on EVERY TROPE INVOLVED with Frankenstein (including EVERY ITERATION OF IT EVER) at it’s TV Tropes page on the Frankenstein topic.


From there, you will see laid out the train of thought, in lay terms, that is behind Hollywood’s obsessions with these anti-tech tropes.

If you wish to see the flip-side of these tropes, then check out Spike Jonze’s Her.

Excellent expansion on my points Matthew. I lived through a lot of the times when the fear of atomic weapons “The War Game”, “Threads”, ‘The Day after” “Dr Stangelove”, “Twilight’s Last Gleaming”, etc. (not to mention the Cuban crisis) had an enormous influence on people’s mentality. And I was born only 11 years after the end of WW2.

“As others have pointed out, this sort of thinking does have its origins in the Frankenstein Myth (hardly the first instance of the “Man was not meant to know these things).”

No, but I think it’s fair to say the success of the Frankenstein novel did a lot to cement the ‘not meant to know’ trope in literature and cinema. It goes back at least to the myth of Prometheus and probably further. I remember there was actually an ancient Greek myth about a man given immortality but the god concerned forgot to give him eternal youth so he lived forever getting older and older and older ...

As a species with great potential for progress we seem to be good at terrifying ourselves about it!

I realize that some of the various ideas trace their origins back to antiquity, but there have been periods when mankind suffered less under them than at others.

And Prometheus isn’t the only such myth.

Gilgamesh, Guatama Buddha, and even many Biblical Myths have such issues in them that man is “not meant to look upon the face of God,” or “Man is not meant to know.”

The Story of Adam and Eve is exactly that myth (Enlil and Enki). The Enumina Elish also contains elements of these myths (considering it is pretty much the origin of the Levantine monomyth).

In Greek Mythology you have all sorts of similar stories outside of Prometheus. You have Talos, who protected Europa after her “abduction” to Crete by Zeus (or others, depending upon the origin of the specific Europa myth), the Bronze Giant, constructed as a mechanical being.

I have been compiling such myths for years.

But….

The current anti-technology trend in Hollywood is due primarily to the works of the specific philosophers I mentioned, who were VERY influential among the Jewish survivors of the Shoah, who themselves effectively ruled the large studios in Hollywood during the 20th century (and still have outsized influence fro their numbers today). And each and every one of them made the fallacious assumption that it was the presence of the technologies themselves that corrupted mankind, rather than that a corrupted mankind sought technological means to pursue their ill intentions.

Just had a look at that TV tropes site and it reminded me that the full title of the novel was “Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus”. The trope has been around for rather a long time hasn’t it?

Taiwanlight…. as I just added another comment, which expanded the history of the various TropeS surrounding Frankenstein (Subtitled: The Modern Prometheus) back to antiquity.

Mankind has always been rather superstitious and frightened of novelty.

When we had no ability to answer our questions about the world (and when the attempts that were made to answer those questions ended in tragedy and death), we made up stories to explain thing that posited Gods or supernatural beings, and those in power ruled that certain topics were “Off limits: The purview of the Gods alone” (usually done in order that they might better control things).

When Science matured in the 19th and 20th centuries, it frightened the FUCK out of a lot of people who either did not have the education to understand what was happening, feared a vengeful God, feared the power that was being unleashed, or all of those.

Add to that the incredible misuse of the products of science by those in the “ignorant” camp (yet were not so ignorant that they feared to use the products for their own ends), and you had a perfect storm of “stoopid” (Google it) that blamed technology, as if it was a living thing itself (which some of these philosopher claimed).

And if you look around the TV Tropes site, you will find thousands (yes, thousands of variations and addendum to the Franekstein tropes.

“And each and every one of them made the fallacious assumption that it was the presence of the technologies themselves that corrupted mankind, rather than that a corrupted mankind sought technological means to pursue their ill intentions.”

Well, I think we face here the old problem that technology is so often a double-edged sword that can cut either way. The scalpel can operate surgically to help an injured being or can be used to inflict injuries in the first place. Hence the importance of morality, of duty, of people using the technology to heal not hurt. In other words I’m agreeing with you. I want to see humanity progress and an exaggerated fear of technology is going to block that.

Nevertheless we do have to exercise caution which is why I still say if immortality is possible we have to be careful. Apparently 1% of us are psychopaths and what they might do with such a technology is enough surely to give us pause. The late Christopher Hitchens discussed the horrific possibility of an eternal North Korea and Richard Dawkins has suggested that every time we seek for immortality we end up with a nightmare. I suggest we do proceed, but with caution.

a Scalpel cuts.

Period.

That’s all it does.

It requires something that is capable of intentional behavior to give it a job.

It does make certain jobs easier, but that has been true for every wheel, pointed stick, counterweight, fulcrum, or lever (the basic “tools” out of which all other tools are formed).

Monkeys were killing each other with sharpened claws before they learned that they could sharpen a stick to kill each other (or to catch animals).

The presence of pointed sticks themselves don’t compel people to go out and kill indiscriminately.

It might be easier for a person to impulsively kill with a world with plentiful pointed sticks, but there is still an intentional desire driving the use of the pointed stick.

The “Double-edged sword” is itself a Trope regarding technology.

As I like to point out to people:

Guns don’t kill, people kill.

But at the same time:

Guns don’t save lives/protect people, people protect/save other’s lives.

Guns just make it easier to kill people (That is what they are made to do).


So, again, the gun is just another “Pointed Stick,” and a world full of pointed stick is going to be more dangerous in a world full of monkeys who act too easily upon impulses.

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