Human or not?
Sci-fi films are grappling with humanity's future. Reed Johnson asks if a non-human can be a person.
Centuries from now, when someone writes the definitive guide to 21st century cinema, he, she or it may take note of the exact moment when The Matrix series ceased to be fun. It occurs in The Matrix Reloaded when Neo, the hero played by Keanu Reeves, turns into a robot.
Not literally, of course. If you saw the 1999 sci-fi hit The Matrix you already know that Neo is one of a handful of human characters battling an army of evil machines that keep people suspended in pods, seducing their minds with virtual-reality fantasies while their unprotesting bodies are drained to make battery juice.
Although Neo retains his humanity in The Matrix Reloaded, the original's much-anticipated follow-up, viewers still may have trouble telling Homo sapiens from cyborgs without a DNA test.
Not so long ago, when men were men and machines had cogs, we imagined robots and other mechanical pseudo-humans as our opposites.
Now, wired to our home computers, Prozac and Palm Pilots in hand, Botox and breast implants lending a spooky "perfection" to our features as we ponder shuffling our genes in order to build perfect babies, we don't seem as fazed by the idea of reprogramming ourselves into something beyond the merely human.
No wonder pop culture is increasingly ambivalent about whether people or androids and their ilk deserve to inherit the Earth - and which group is ultimately more "human".
Matrix Reloaded starts to muddy the old man v machine debate in a sequence in which Neo single-handedly routs a posse of clones descended from the dry-witted, revenge-minded Agent Smith; they swarm on Neo like hysterical schoolgirls chasing the Fab Four in A Hard Day's Night.
The episode should electrify, but it fizzles because the audience quickly realises that Neo has become just another invulnerable Hollywood stunt-assailants like so many gnats while barely ruffling his leather duster.
In the first Matrix instalment, though Neo could dodge bullets and vault across rooftops, he was still largely bound by his human limitations, vulnerable and sweet in a geeky, kid-brother kind of way. We could identify with his fears of confronting a terrifying hidden reality, his existential dread at the state of the world.
But the Reloaded Neo is humourless and preternaturally reserved, and with practically unlimited powers — he can fly; he can intuit the bad guys' presence like a cybernetic Miss Cleo (an American psychic) — he's hardly discernible from the unfeeling, brutally efficient machines he's supposed to be fighting for the sake of the human race.
Since The Matrix was released four years ago, thousands of words have been written citing its philosophical and literary influences, from Plato's analogy of the cave to French bad-boy intellectual Jean Baudrillard. But another book that speaks resonantly to the themes the movie raises is Bill McKibben's just-published Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age (Times Books).
In it, the author of The End of Nature argues that new technologies such as genetic engineering and advanced robotics threaten not only human survival, but also human identity.
What will it mean for any person to an IQ of 160 if it's all mapped out in a lab before birth, McKibben asks? What will be distinctive about these achievements if they can be attained by anyone who can afford to buy the right chromosome sequence?
It's in sci-fi treatments such as The Matrix and the novels of William Gibson and Greg Egan, McKibben asserts, that we can best see the consequences of such once-unimaginable scenarios. "I think that we'd be wise not to try to turn ourselves into robots, or robots into ourselves if there's no need to do it," he says. "It's not clear what the necessity is for that in our lives."
The problem may be that we don't exactly know how to define "human" anymore. (We'll see another cinematic example of the receding line between people and 'bots when the third instalment of the Terminator series blasts onto cineplex screens this month. What does it say about a film's view of the human condition when the machine, Arnold Schwarzenegger, keeps being asked back for the sequels?)
"There's a huge philosophical discussion about what makes a person a person, but I think the important thing to acknowledge is that a non-human can be a person," says Michael McKenna, an associate professor of philosophy at Ithaca College in New York State.
"E.T. could be a person, Data from Star Trek could be a person. There are some scientists who think that a dolphin could be a person.
Consciousness depends on the ability to reflect upon and evaluate oneself. You needn't be a human being to be a person, and given that it's possible there are animals that are non-human persons, it's not inconceivable to imagine that you could build a person."
Films such as Blade Runner and Stanley Kubrick's 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, radically and disturbingly argued that if humans no longer acted like humans, what reason was there to barrack for them against the machines? Other '70s dystopian movies such as Silent Running and Westworld showed humans to have poisoned the planet through greed, warfare, moral decadence or environmental destruction, while becoming as cold and unfeeling as any robot. When the actual robots took over, or took their revenge, it was hard not to cheer under your breath. We'd come a long way from the evil, steel doppelganger in Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
Blade Runner initially flopped with many reviewers and the public because its human characters were deemed too inhuman - which, of course, was exactly the point. The "post-human" feel that Pauline Kael and other critics found in Blade Runner was deliberately created by Scott and his production team to scramble the distinction between the ostensibly human characters such as Deckard, the robot-hunting mercenary played by Harrison Ford, and the exploited, cruelly short-lived "replicants", who'd been pressed into slavery by their human masters.
Later movies such as Steven Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and The Matrix pushed these arguments even further, daring to ask whether simulated intelligence, non-human personhood and a virtual existence might not actually be better than the "real"' thing. The A.I. robot portrayed by Haley Joel Osment is much more sensitive and likable than the scheming biological offspring of his adoptive human parents, making him endearing and unnerving. This visionary fairy tale of a film unsettled some viewers and critics who may have been expecting director Spielberg at his warm and fuzziest. Instead, A.I. reminds us that robots are really the mechanical stand-ins for our own desires and fears - and their seeming perfection throws our shortcomings into high relief.
Faced with a choice between an unbearably grim, human-made reality and a seductive electronic fantasy, a virtual existence concocted by a machine, The Matrix asks how many, or rather how few, people would rather fight than surrender their core humanity - not only their physical bodies, but also their capacity for free will.
Neo's fearless quest to know the truth is supposed to represent the antithesis of Cypher's cynical surrender. By the end of Reloaded, according to the movie's internal logic, Neo has truly begun to liberate himself in transcendent Zen fashion. Yet his evolution makes him appear not more human, but less so. Because his powers now rival or even exceed those of the machines, his choices are less consequential; his exercise of free will carries less weight than it did when he was more obviously made of mere flesh and blood.
Although Morpheus tells Neo he is the One, the saviour of mankind, Neo's cool clashes sharply with the hot-blooded primitives living in Zion, the last human holdout, who rave against the machines by throwing massive dance parties that morph into orgies.
Until near the end of the second film, when he risks Zion's survival to save his love interest, Trinity, Neo's attitude toward the machine-oppressors might as well be: "Can't beat 'em, might as well join 'em."
Of course, we'll have to wait for the final instalment of the Wachowskis' trilogy, The Matrix Revolutions, before we'll know how Neo handles his new powers.
Are robots and other intelligent machines our enemies, or our alter egos and heirs? Reloaded probably won't be the last film to raise that uncomfortable question, to make us interrogate our own identities and even wonder if life as a Tin Man or Tin Woman might really be so bad after all if we only had a heart.
Terminator 3 opens on July 17.