Transhumanism is a philosophical movement that advocates for the transformation of the human condition by developing and making widely available sophisticated technologies to enhance human intellect and physiology.
Basically, it is the belief that eventually, humans will develop enough, either technologically or biologically, as to be able to transition themselves into beings that can no longer be considered simply human.
It’s a striking idea, and most importantly for us today, it has had a huge effect on the films we make.
That’s right, today we’re talking about what really matters in life: science fiction movies.
It should be no surprise that many radical ideas from the transhumanism movement also make for great film ideas.
Science fiction films have long given us the chance of seeing what a world filled with nanobots or AI would be like.
Usually, these form part of a cautionary tale, but one way or another we get to see these ideas brought to life on screen.
From blockbusters like The Matrix and Avatar to lesser-known gems like Splice and Ghost In The Shell, transhumanism has taken many forms and explored many aspects of the human condition in the cinematic catalog.
Picking the very best of all of these would be nigh on impossible. Instead, let's focus on those that show us the most interesting aspects of this movement to transcend the boundaries of the human frame.
So, without further ado, here are five of the best movies that center on unique aspects around the theme of transhumanism.
One of the more grounded of all transhumanist movies, Limitless is about a struggling writer who runs into a drug-dealing friend who offers him some NZT-48, a top-secret drug that will solve all his problems.
The drug does all that and more as it hyper-charges his brain, allowing him to write a book, learn languages, crack the stock market, and manipulate the people around him with relative ease.
Then there’s some plot about a pharmaceutical company and a race to get more of the drug, but frankly, I got lost in Bradley Cooper’s eyes and wasn’t paying attention.
Where lesser movies might rely on their protagonist becoming less human to depict their transcendence—*cough, Lucy, *cough—the main character in Limitless remains totally human, becoming something we can only now dream of, but within realms where we can still grasp his experiences.
He isn’t gaining a superpower or augmenting his brain with technology, he’s simply supercharging his synapses, allowing his brain to fire so quickly that he essentially has access to every bit of information he has ever learned or encountered simultaneously.
Fantastical, perhaps, but something that is also in line with many neuroscientists’ speculations of our brains’ power of retention.
Another great thing about this movie is that cognitive stimulants, AKA nootropics, actually exist. Granted, none are quite as powerful as NZT-48, but many are still used therapeutically and even in academics’ daily lives.
It’s only a matter of time before chemically ‘doping’ our intelligence will be the norm, else you might risk being… limited.
An absolute classic of transhumanist cinema, Gattaca tells the story of a normal man born into a society where genetically engineering children to be superior is the norm.
In order to achieve his dream of going to space, the man must assume the identity of a genetically superior person at great peril to himself if he is ever found out.
What’s so great about this movie is just how incredibly plausible it all seems. Many of the reproductive technologies it depicts are actual realities nowadays.
And with the rise of genetic technologies like CRISPR, the idea of a world where being a perfectly normal human being means being less than what is expected seems disturbingly real.
But Gattaca has a bigger statement to make that is very different from the rest of its warnings. It’s a comment on the extent to which genetics really are and are not the final destiny of a human being.
This message is often missed among the more obvious horror of what it would be like to live in a genetic caste system.
But ultimately Gattaca’s main point is that however ‘utopic’ or ‘dystopic’ the future of humanity might become, if we can retain just a fraction of the human characteristics that cannot be screened in or out of our DNA – such as courage, will, and dedication – all of us will still have a chance at making our mark.
RoboCop (1987 and 2014)
So, while I love the original, I want to talk more directly about the 2014 remake here as it more directly confronts the transhuman themes. (Plus, I kind of have a soft spot for it.)
The movie is about a police officer who nearly dies, but is given a second chance at life with a cybernetic body that— in theory— will allow him to be the perfect blend of an unstoppable robot, and thinking, emotional human.
But he is betrayed by the company behind his regenesis who are only interested in having the perfect, order-following soldier, and he has to fight to maintain the last shreds of his humanity.
The main transhumanist question here is “what, exactly, does it mean to be human?”
And honestly, the movie comes a long way toward providing a suitable answer. For one, it seems to say the actual biological human body doesn’t matter.
Being human– according to RoboCop– might not even involve having our own memories or a completely free will. What it does require, it would seem, is emotion.
And not just the semblance of it that any Alexa can mimic, but the complex, irrational web of thoughts and feelings that compromises what we might call, for lack of a better word, our soul.
The very core of us. For as soon as the movie’s hero has his emotions removed, he no longer – in the movie’s words – hesitates.
And all humans must hesitate when making difficult decisions, or else we may as well be nothing more than robots, and humanity really will be lost.
Ultimately, whichever version you prefer, RoboCop is a great example of the dangers of aiming at perfection when it comes to transhumanism. After all, who knows what monsters “perfect” human beings might become.
The Island (2005)
Set in 2019— which is frankly a little depressing to think about—The Island follows two characters who find out they are actually clones being kept in a regimented society to serve as organ donors for their “real life” doubles.
When one of them is called in for harvesting they escape their containment and attempt to survive in the real world.
While it would be easy to write this off as another popcorn Michael Bay action film, the truth is that few transhumanist films have ever been so bold as this.
While the movie’s central theme of cloning could be seen as having more to do with gene therapy than a true enhancement.
It still portrays a humanity regularly relying on something external to “transcend” the natural human limits, and dealing with the ethical problem of creating human beings purely for someone else’s purposes.
As we move into the next phase of humanity these are bound to be at least related to the types of questions we as a society will have to face.
Who would have ever thought that Michael Bay would give us a nuanced exploration of what it actually means to be human?
Iron Man (2008)
Some might argue that this isn’t technically a fair entry because superheroes are in a category of their own in that they are more than human by default.
But a lot of superheroes start off as ordinary human beings and then somehow end up with powers that allow them to burst their way through those limits.
And more specifically, some heroes have no powers at all, but use their intelligence and expertise with technology to lift themselves up from the crowd of ordinary people to become extraordinary… If you see what I’m getting at.
Iron man is a fantastic transhumanist movie. In it, Tony Stark, when forced by extreme circumstance and mortal injury, builds a piece of technology that makes him the most unbeatable soldier on Earth. (Not currently frozen at least.)
Interestingly, Iron Man goes a long way toward representing the growing trend in transhumanism that disability may not only be cured, but actually be a chance to allow people to achieve a genuine enhancement in place of those disabilities.
Like amputees racing on carbon-fiber blades, Iron Man is a hero who took the next logical step in human augmentation, and made it look pretty darned cool at the same time.