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Transhumanist Movie Musings: Avatar and Iron Man 2 June 4, 2010

Posted by Summerspeaker in Technology, The Singularity, Transhumanism.
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It’s finally happened. While visiting an old friend I watched that famous wish-fulfillment flick about blue aliens. White imperialist becomes an even better Indian than the Indians themselves and saves them all from his people. I can see why the movie has been popular; it resonates with the classical American mythological theme of whites mastering Native American ways. See Richard Slotkin. In this case, however, the protagonist completely abandons his white, civilized identity to become the coolest eight-foot azure warrior ever. Though he rejects and defeats the human aggressors through suitably awesome cinematic violence, the result amounts to white supremacy. Oh, and of course he gets the girl. What proper indigenous alien race could do without heterocentrism and monogamy? It’s fun story with some important points, but ultimately problematic.

Though obviously chosen a as parable rather than for plausibility, the theme of nature defeating technology on the battlefield makes me shake my head. As much as we might want courage to trump caliber, doesn’t work like that. Present trends suggest that the military, if it still exists at that point, will be absurdly powerful by the time we reach other planets. Carbon-fiber bones and big toxic arrows wouldn’t matter at all against vast arrays of sensors and gigajoule-level weapons that never miss. Even in the present day the rifle is becoming obsolete against U.S. soldiers; explosives cause most of the causalities, not small arms fire. Alongside the technical impracticality of the Avatar war scene comes the politically questionable affirmation of violence. Unfortunately, real guerrilla war historically revolves around shooting the traitor more than pitched battles against the better-armed opponent. It’s at least as ugly as it is glorious.

Interestingly, Iron Man 2 stands out as even more explicitly transhumanist than Avatar is primitivist.  In some ways it embodies the excesses of the current movement. Ridiculously wealthy genius playboy makes himself into a cyborg and personally polices the planet, inventing society-shaping technologies on the side. While the fleshbag-in-metal-suit action is about as reasonable as in the other movie, the holographic interferences and dreams of future cities have immediate relevance. In context of the film’s embrace if not exultation of privilege, does this help or hurt the movement? I’m not sure. I would like to see a thoughtful treatment of future technologies in mainstream cinema.

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