“Brother Ass” or “stupid apes”? Transhumanism, the Imago Dei and Hollywood

SDG Original source: National Catholic Register

An old family friend of mine who enjoys playing Internet village atheist on Facebook often expresses his great hope to see his consciousness someday uploaded into cyberspace and to live out the ages in a virtual paradise of his own devising.

Where St. Francis referred to his body with affectionate severity as “Brother Ass,” my friend uses the phrase “stupid apes” to disparage human existence in its living, breathing corporeality, its bodily existence. For him, it seems, the whole business of flesh, blood and bones, of nerves, muscle and skin, of appetites, instincts and emotions — the very stuff of human existence — appear as a disposable and indeed rather discreditable first stage in a multistage rocket.

I sometimes suspect this is less a practical hope than whistling in the dark, a secular fig leaf against the fear of death in the absence of any religious hope of life after death. (His occupation involves a daily memento mori: He engraves inscriptions on headstones.) Either way, his hope reflects a serious goal for many who call themselves transhumanists.

In 2002, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger approved for publication a document of the International Theological Commission, titled “Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God,” which addresses the foundations of transhumanism. Affirming that man is created body and soul in the Imago Dei or image of God, the document teaches that human nature and the character of the human body are not ours to dispose of or to modify as we see fit. Therapeutic interventions (e.g., replacing a severed limb with a bionic one) are one thing; transformative adaptations (e.g., electively replacing healthy limbs with bionic ones) are another.

As technology progresses and the culture and the Gospel continue to draw further apart, transhumanist aspirations flourish, both as a worldview and in the world of popular culture. The most recent film to explore the full-fledged notion of uploading a human personality to a computer, Transcendence (2012), starring Johnny Depp, made little impression with audiences or critics. However, less totalizing transhumanist aspirations in other films have been more successful.

In spite of this, Her embraces its transhumanist milieu in a way that it seems to me Ex Machina doesn’t necessarily. In fact, I think Ex Machina is actually the more humanistic film, or at least more open to a humanistic reading.

Two recent R-rated films, this summer’s Ex Machina and last year’s Her, have explored the question of whether our emotional and physical needs can be met by artificial intelligences and robot bodies just as well as bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh.

This is not a new question; among other examples, Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film A.I. Artificial Intelligence depicted human parents adopting a “mecha” boy and also portrayed robot lovers, such as Jude Law’s Gigolo Joe.

But A.I., with its dystopian, post-apocalyptic setting, was something of a cautionary tale. Ex Machina and Her are set in worlds much like our own, and for the most part neither comes off as a cautionary tale.

Of the two, Ex Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland, has a more post-human vibe, using its chilly tale of male technocrats and intelligent female robots to deconstruct human nature. Adapting the premise of the Turing test — a measure of a machine’s capacity for human-like intelligent behavior — Ex Machina raises the disquieting proposal that it is not so much that robots can be people as that people are essentially just complex robots in the first place.

Writer-director Spike Jonze’s Her is warmer and squishier, playing as a bittersweet but ultimately affirmative depiction of a transhumanist romance between an introverted young man named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) and an adaptive computer operating system, a sort of super-Siri named Samantha (voiced by Scarlet Johansson).

In spite of this, Her embraces its transhumanist milieu in a way that it seems to me Ex Machina doesn’t necessarily. In fact, I think Ex Machina is actually the more humanistic film, or at least more open to a humanistic reading.

There is one important human capacity that Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot built by the reclusive, brilliant CEO of a Google-like tech firm, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), may not have. It is a capacity that Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer chosen by Nathan to administer a Turing test to Ava, does have — a capacity, in fact, that Nathan reveals he specifically looked for in choosing Caleb for this role: a “moral compass.” Ironically, Caleb’s efforts to probe Ava’s human-like abilities never turn in this direction.

Although Nathan graphically describes Ava’s capacity for sexual behavior, man and machine are not two halves that can come together to form a whole.

The film has a moral compass, too. Although Caleb’s conscience and his empathy for Ava play a significant role, the film implicates him as well as Nathan in the essentially egocentric, exploitative fantasy of a robot sex partner, linking this fantasy explicitly to pornography and implicitly to the sexual objectification of women on the screen. There is quite a bit of full female nudity, but a crucial plot twist indicts the exploitative “male gaze” in cinema.

In the central relationship in Her, by contrast, there is nothing to gaze at, because Samantha has no corporal existence; she is simply a voice emanating from computer speakers. Samantha and Theodore’s romance is analogous to a long-distance relationship, with an element not of pornography but of phone sex.

Neither here nor in Ex Machina is there any possibility of a true union of two in one flesh. Although Nathan graphically describes Ava’s capacity for sexual behavior, man and machine are not two halves that can come together to form a whole.

Unsurprisingly, then, both films put the emphasis on the emotional side of the relationships. Of the two, Her is much more affirming and uncritical, though not all commentators have seen it that way. The Christian critic Josh Larsen writes optimistically:

“One of the many intriguing things about Her … is its healthy view of technology. Whereas many science-fiction films see technical innovation as one path to perfection (consider the Star Trek franchise), Her recognizes that technology won’t be able to save us.”

It’s true, as Larsen says, that Her doesn’t depict technology as our savior. But unlike some romantic films (e.g., Titanic), Her isn’t a story of salvation, but of growth.

Technology in Her is not The Answer, but a piece of the puzzle, something that may be incredibly meaningful at a particular point in our lives, like any other relationship — say, a relationship with a childhood friend that blossoms into eros and marriage, like Theodore’s failed marriage to his soon-to-be-ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara).

Her suggests that just as Theodore and Catherine’s divorce doesn’t mean their marriage wasn’t meaningful and important, so Theodore’s relationship with Samantha, although it eventually comes to an end, helps them each to grow and become stronger.

In some ways Her invites comparison to Craig Gillespie’s quirky, surprisingly sweet film Lars and the Real Girl. Lars stars Ryan Gosling as a socially dysfunctional young man whose chaste “relationship” with a “love doll” called Bianca helps him to grow and prepares him for real personal relationships (somewhat as a child develops emotional and social skills by interacting with a teddy bear).

But Lars is gently satiric in a way that Her isn’t, and implicitly recognizes that Bianca, however necessary she may be to Lars at the moment, is only an emotional crutch, not a true partner. The film’s title itself implicitly acknowledges the truth that there is no substitute for a real girl — or by extension, for a real boy.

If movies like Her and Ex Machina are any indication, it’s a truth that may be increasingly unpersuasive to many boys and girls in the years to come.

Cultures of Life and Death, Science Fiction, Smart Robot (Artificial Intelligence)