Biotech Cinema

May 30, 2018 by Contributing Writer on The Nickelodeon Blog
Seconds (1966)

By Travis Wagner

Representations of biotech—the intersection of technology with biology — often promise that the technologically-enabled synchronization of physical embodiment with the experience of the mind will bring about unprecedented advances for humanity. A world of order where the rational dominates the emotional and chaos is finally contained. However, the very fictional speculations and nonfictional experiments that introduce this premise are often quick to undermine it — acknowledging the complex, and even sloppy, relationship between mind and body. Is the mind merely a brain and part of the body? Is the body controlled by the mind? Does the body, in fact, have a “mind of its own”? Who controls bodies and minds when they are patented and adapted?   

Ex Machina (2014)

In his memoir Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, trans scholar and activist Paul Preciado reflected on his experience transitioning, writing: “is the challenge and the temptation of all philosophy: running after the body or after the head.” The statement is an apt summary of the confusions that arise as technology becomes intertwined with human biology. Some advances — the opening of one’s phone with a motion of the eyes, adjusting an insulin dosage with a computer — are generally considered positive and make us feel more in command of our bodies. Others, such as the use of remote drones for surveillance or the non-consensual implantation of psychotropic implants — make us feel more vulnerable. If external, widely available technologies monitor and guide our bodies, do they displace the mind?

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

The history of cinema is rife with examples of the medium provoking affective and physical responses in audiences (a myth of cinema’s inception describes people fleeing a theater convinced a train was rushing towards them). The Nickelodeon’s forthcoming series “The Body Electric” celebrates cinema as a particularly vibrant forum for the exploration of the anxieties and excitement that accompany biotech. The films in the series examine the notion that by altering one’s body (and mind) using technology one can change their place in life. However, the outcomes of these procedures prove to far more complex that mere liberation. In John Frankenheimer’s perspective shattering and paranoia-laden thriller Seconds (1966), Tony’s (Rock Hudson) quest for a more youthful body ends up dislodging his mind — trapping him in a loop in which he sees his former self — a different but familiar body.  In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), psycho-surgical innovations enable Joel (Jim Carrey) to seek professional, medical assistance in forgetting his devastating failed relationship with Clementine (Kate Winslet). What unfolds is an exploration of the relationship between memory and reality that guides viewers through an imaginative labyrinth of pleasure and heartache. Both of these films focus on the experiences and emotions of white male characters.

Sleep Dealer (2008)

However, other films in the series, such as Sleep Dealer (2008), consider the idea that in the Biotech era some bodies remain subject to greater exploitation than others. Set on the US-Mexican border, the film imagines a world where immigrant bodies engage in labor through virtual reality rigs that allow them to remotely build skyscrapers for a multinational corporation. In this appropriately heavy-handed and tragically overlooked film, the bodies and minds of Mexican laborers complicate the idea of who benefits from biotech. The 2014 film Ex Machina explores bodies (entirely) made from biotech. Caleb, (Black Mirror alum Domhnall Gleeson) attempts to see if the AI-bot Ava (Alicia Vikander) can pass the humanity-granting Turing Test.  The entire enterprise is overseen by macho tech bigwig Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who hopes to make Ava “real” and Caleb desire her as the ultimate display of his own intellectual prowess, a demonstration that he can manipulate people and technology in equal measure. Designed to be an attractive woman — Ava initiates a slippage between Caleb’s desire to encounter perfected technology and for “genuine” human bonding. Lurking within this ambiguity, Alex Garland’s richly ambient film becomes an interrogation of how advances in biotech are prompted by the desires and motivations of patriarchal power structures.

Linking these films together is that they explore, like Preciado, the complex relationship between body and mind. When minds are prodded and rewired who controls them? Are they still bonded to the body that contains them? “The Body Electric” asks viewers what it means to exist in era of biotech — while imploring that  “humanity,” ie empathy in any form, means more now than ever before.