American Cinema, Technology and Cyborg Embodiment

Chapter 3: Robots, Global Warming and Renewable Energy



Wall-e (Benjamin A. Burtt) is an animation about a robot named Wall-e the last of his kind whose ‘directive’ is to clean the earth because it has become uninhabitable for humans. Wall-e has developed emotion over the years, which is shown by his collection of objects he likes, such as lighters, bulbs and videos of musicals. One day, a spaceship drops off another Robot; Eve (Elissa Knight) who Wall-e quickly falls in love with. Her ‘directive’ is to find life on earth, which she finds after Wall-e shows her his collection, as a plant is part of his collection. Eva holds the plant in a compartment and shuts down. Wall-e looks after her until eventually, she is collected by a spaceship. Wall-e chases it and holds onto the outside of the spaceship. They are taken to the mothership where all the humans have escaped to due to the global warming back on earth. All the humans have become obese and forgotten how to walk as they have been on the ship for 700 years. The plant goes missing as the autopilot has taken control of the ship as classified information is later revealed; the planet Earth is no longer safe. Also, a robot character Auto (MacInTalk) has actually been feeding the humans, human because after 700 years there would be nothing else on the ship to eat and there were no farms visible throughout the film. Nevertheless, the captain (Jeff Garlin) realises that Auto has been controlling the ship since the beginning and regains control. He returns everyone back to earth because he realises that life is sustainable again because the plant has survived. Wall-e and Eve find the plant and take it to the Holo-Detector chamber while the pilot fights off and switches off auto. They return to earth, start farming and rebuilding a society on their home planet.

The fact that the robots save the day shows that technology can be very useful. Without technology, films would not be made. Also, animations such as these would take a large amount more time to make compared to what they do now. They would also be less portable as they would only be on paper and drawn so if people wanted to see them, they would have to travel to see the flip books. Furthermore, there would not be the option of sound as even though the first 22 minutes of Wall-e has no dialogue, at least the producers had that choice to add some. This helped show Wall-e’s isolation before he met Eve which was emphasised through long shots. Films are becoming “…increasingly technological over the years, incorporating advanced digital projections and animations in events such as The Parallel of Human Being (2000), an idiosyncratic quasi-Dada exploration of the evolution of robotics and the emergence of the cyborg, what the company call “a weird montage of low-tech futurology” (Dixon, 2007, p 68) The development of technology in film is revealed through the musical Hello Dolly because it was made in 196 and technology has improved to a high degree since then. As now we have films such as “James Cameron’s spectacular 2009 film Avatar. Employing state-of-the-art digital effects, motion-capture photography, and other cutting-edge cinematic technologies, many developed just for this movie, Cameron and his team of artists, designers, and technicians created a lush world of breathtaking beauty…” (Dunn, Irwin, William, 2014, p 1) In 3 dimension Imax cinemas instead of the tiny television Wall-e uses. The possibility of robots has to stay open “…as Jacques Derrida points out, we would be replacing the idea of the future with what he terms a ‘programmable tomorrow’ … in such case, the fear of technology of change of what the future might bring projected onto the robot.” (Zylinska, 2002, p 4) As technology can be incredible, especially when it comes to making films because cranes or helicopters used to be needed to shoot from high angles but now there are drones which can now be used if a license is obtained. Therefore, it is endearing to see such friendly robot characters animated for young children to see but to also warn them of the effects it could have on the environment.

Wall-e shows that the way we are using technology now is causing global warming. We use fossil fuels which are causing “Pollution Problems.” (Gray, 1995, p xiii) However, we are also starting to use technology more sustainable technology such as the wind and solar power. This is shown in the film as Wall-e is fuelled by energy from the sun. However, there is another robot that tries to sabotage the return to earth which connotes that some forms of technology are good and some are bad - fossil fuels vs solar energy. Nevertheless, if we avoid the bad and develop the good technology, it “holds the promise of other forms of intelligence”. (Gray, 1995, p 265) This is shown when the pilot looks up dictionary definitions of different words when Eve brings back the plant the first time. Moreover, without technology, we would not have been able to explore space. As “Jacques Derrida continues we should follow the developments of technology with ‘the possibility of discovering that which is new, strange and previously unseen” (Zylinska, 2002, p 153). This is conveyed in the film when all the humans are living on the spaceship. Also, when the pilot learns how to walk and makes his first steps, the same music that is used on television whenever a clip of the moon landing is shown. “Cyborg coined to describe a ‘man’/machine coupling designed to ensure human survival in space.” (Gray, 1995, p 260) There has been a robot sent to Mars called the Mars Exploration Rover which is sending information about the planet. Therefore, we may be able to move there if we destroy earth, in order to survive.

Similarly, Blade Runner is set in a dystopian future as the only people left on earth are not wealthy or unhealthy. It is also illegal for robots, also known as replicas, to live on earth, which is why detective Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is sent to kill them. However, he meets Rachel (Sean Young) who does not know she is a replica until she does a Voight-Kampff (machine in German) test to prove it. Later, Rachel kills replica Leon (Brion James) because he was trying to kill Rick. Leon’s replica friends Pris (Daryl Hannah) and Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) are on the hunt for a scientist J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson) and Dr Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) who made them. As they want to live longer than four years which they have been programmed to live for. After, Rick kills Pris, Roy and Rick battle to the death. However, Roy stops Rick from falling off a rooftop just before Roy poetically dies from old age at four years old. Rick and Rachel run away together because they have fallen in love and Rick does not believe she should be killed as she did not know she was a replica. Also, it is implied that Rick is also a replica and he did not know either because he had a dream of a unicorn and a unicorn origami was left outside his house. The only way anyone would know his dreams and memories is if they had put them there themselves. However, this is left ambiguous to set up the question who is more humane the replicas or the humans.

Are the replicants more human than the humans? As explained in chapter 1; the definition of humane is having or showing compassion. On one hand, Rick’s occupation is to kill Replicas which is not very compassionate at all. On the other hand, if Rick is, in fact, a replica, then it makes sense that he is a killer. Nonetheless, it is also not compassionate to give the replicas four years to live but they have to, otherwise, they could develop emotions and go out of control. Moreover, if they are self-learning replicas, then they are even more dangerous because they could become smarter than the humans and not need them to increase their life span or create more replicas as they will be able to do that themselves. Therefore, they may kill all of the humans and live forever. “This recurring story is about our profound anxiety that we have lost control, and may even be destroyed by the technology we have created in the modern age. (Dixon, 2007, p109 ) We have lost control, which is revealed through climate change which is shown in the film through the constant acid rain throughout the film. This is emphasised by all the animals that had become extinct, as they could not adapt to the environment, thus in the film, there are replica animals such as owls and snakes.

Another question is if replicas do have a soul or humane personality where is it kept, in their emotions, in their memories or in their programming. Steve Dixon argues that it depends on the audience’s culture as he states “So what happens when cyborgs are created from members of cultures for which seat of the soul is the eyes…Does this also mean there are ‘right’ and wrong uses of these cyborgs across cultural or national lines?” (2007, p 215) This could arguably cause cultural divisions in the future when replica become a reality. Eyes are used many times in Blade Runner though. For example, at the beginning, there is an all seeing eye that reflects the despotic city burning. The replicas are tested to see if they are human through their eyes, Roy goes to see the creator of his eyes and kills his creator by squeezing his eyes. Thus, in this universe, the soul is stored in the eyes. Therefore, “how much of the human needs to remain in order to to call an entity “human”?” (Gray, 1995, p 204) because if you were to remove people’s eyes, would that mean that there is no way of telling if one was human or not? “cyborgs are about particular sorts of breached boundaries that confuse… categories crucial to that culture’s natural technical evolutionary narratives.” (Gray, 1995, p xvi) Instead of helping us find out more about humans, is it just confusing us? Evan Puschak argues it’s not because one’s soul or “humanness is rooted in our identity which is why all of the replicas including Rick search for a new one.” (2014 online)This is why it feels like emotion and memories are the roots to being human because they are the root of one’s identity.

Lastly, advertising is everywhere in both films, for example, the electric Coco Cola in Blade Runner and B&L in Wall-e signs are shown many times. “Technology escapes the control of its inventors to produce unseen and unforeseeable changes and possibilities, and thus the future…” (Zylinska, 2002, p139). This is not only conveyed through masses of adverts but also through the replicas as they escape control and kill their creator, also Rick and Rachel escape at the end. Although, advertising brings financial gain to society there is also a general frustration when viewers are forced to watch them. As audiences feel like they are being brainwashed like the humans in Wall-e when the advert says to change the colour of their clothes and all do it automatically. Nevertheless, “Robots usually appear frightening, dangerous figures like… the replicants that menace humanity in Blade Runner” (Dixon, 2007 p 108) because we do not necessarily understand them. “On one hand, the whole arena of the mechanic surface becomes organised in relation to the gaze. While on the other hand the interior space of technology is heightened in a mystery and allure.” (Gray, 1995, p398) People may know how to use an iPad or Replica but they do not know how to make the technology or how to program it yet. “As children from five upwards return to school, they are going to have to start learning how to program… This is the result of the new national curriculum for computing that is being introduced in England this term.” (Rory Cellan-Jones, 2014, online) When people do know how to program and control robots, perhaps the future will look a bit less frightening because “It provides one way, among many others, of exploring the various facets of what it might mean to exist at or beyond the body technology threshold” (Dixon, 2007, p 262) and helps people learn about everything as the pilot conveyed very well when he kept looking up dictionary definitions on the computer.

At the beginning of my research, I was strongly against technology because the media is like the Matrix as it surrounds it’s viewers and feeds audiences this idea that technology is unhealthy. Films and even TV series such as Westworld are very negative when it comes to technology as they often end with the robots gaining consciousness and not needing humans anymore and the “People who control the media reflect their beliefs…” (Dedelow, 2009, p 218). Nevertheless, the media in Iron Man 2 is conveyed in a very positive light as it does what is supposed to do; transmit information live. Hence, Pepper was able to see that Tony was in trouble on the racing tracks when Ivan first battles with him. Therefore, Pepper was able to get Tony’s suit to him in the nick of time in order to stay alive and save the people there. Thus, if the media was used correctly would we audiences be more appreciative? I think the popular consensus is that if authentic the topic has more value. On one hand, some audience members like Cypher would prefer to not know what is really going on in the world if it is bad because it may be too distressing. On the other hand, I think that in order to deal with global problems we need to be properly informed about them first.

Similarly, audiences need to be adequately informed about technology. As Dixon argues that negative representations of technology are due to “mythological therianthrope (animal-human) images and Freudian conceptions of “the uncanny” resonate loudly within dramatic depictions of digital doubles, robots, and cyborgs. (Dixon, 2007, p 69) The myth of therianthrope is that humans are scared of turning into animals which are why a popular audience idea is that robots are not the way forward. As humans will have to fight for control which is not humane, which has been revealed in Blade Runner. However, technology is improving the media massively as we would not have films such as the ones explored in this article without the equipment we have now. Therefore, due to my research, I have decided that we should moderate our technology use. I have learnt why some people are a bit hesitant when it comes to letting it take over the world as “…society has become consumed by mass media.…” (Dixon, 2007, p153-4). Consequently, if audiences do not let themselves use technology or the media to the extent that they cannot live without them like the characters in The Matrix and Her then that is acceptable.

However, this may change in the future, the stigma and my prejudice against technology may eventually be lifted like audiences have seen in Her. “Posthuman theories, extending McLuhan’s concept of mediatized consciousness and Baudrillard’s ideas of simulacra and simulation, suggest that there is no reason why we should recognise breathing living bodies have greater solidity and authenticity than electronic humans similarly engaged in performative actions.”(Dixon, 2007, p153-4) After all, all of the cyborg and robot characters experience the adventures in the same way the human characters did. As most reacted with emotion and stored it in their memory adding to their identities. Therefore, if cyborgs and robots become so much like humans i.e. develop consciousness we will have to let them live alongside us. “Is there really any difference between an artificial organ and a biological one that has been technologically altered?” (Dixon, 2007, p 209) For example, the stigma behind plastic surgery is slowly declining. In the future people might as well just change it to an artificial body part instead. Just like the Terminator’s plastic face or Iron Man’s “heart by-pass device…” (Gray, 1995, p 202) As people not only become more attractive but more importantly people are living longer.

Or are they? Depression has increased, which could also be due to heightened expectations from edited photos. People as are not living in the present anymore, they save pictures to remember in the future. Photography used to be thought of as “ph’autograhy’ ; that is the photography is autobiographical” (Zylinska, 2002, p197). However, now they can be edited, filtered and photoshopped making people feel disappointed with their lives as a result of how photographs used to be perceived. This is similar to how many innocent people die in the Terminator 2, The Matrix and Iron Man 2 due to technology i.e. weapons. For example, all of the agents are essentially people in The Matrix and it is stated that the body cannot live without the mind in the film, thus the number of agents that die in the Matrix is a number of innocent people that die in real life as well. Therefore, as explained in chapter one, people need to adopt a “digital diet” especially cutting back on the social media and nuclear weapons. As Russell Brand states “violence breeds violence because if viewers think it’s normal to obtain revenge then they will normalise violence and breed children that also think it is normal.” (2017, Online) Thus, if we react to the war on terror by carrying on with our lives it will be better as we will not sink to their level. As Frank Sinatra said “The best revenge is a massive success.” (online) Therefore, the government should spend less money on weapons and more money developing space and travel to the best of our abilities.

 As Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote “Even Tennyson penned a paean to change: Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range, Let the great world spin forever down the ringing grooves of change.” (Tennyson, p. 34, The Triumph of Time) There is no way of going back now because the benefits definitely outweigh the drawbacks with most technology such as transportation. Whether that is through space like in Wall-e, or flying cars like in Blade Runner we cannot deny it’s usefulness. However, you never know what the future might bring which is probably why it is so scary as in some cases we are going back in time with technology. For example, phones are getting bigger again and vinyl and Duke boxes are making a comeback. We may be frightened of change and uncertainty but it may only be natural for the evolution of the mechanical to continue.

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Filmography

Avatar, 2009, [film] Directed by James Cameron. USA: 20th Century Fox

Blade Runner, 1982, [film] Directed by Ridley Scott. USA: Warner Bros.

Her, 2013, [film] directed by Spike Jonze. USA: Warner Bros. Pictures

Iron Man 2, 2010, [film] Directed by Jon Favreau. USA: Paramount Pictures

Terminator 2: Judgement day, 1991, [film] Directed by James Cameron. USA: TriStar Pictures

The End of the Tour, 2015, [film] Directed by James Ponsoldt. USA: A24

The Matrix, 1999, [film] directed by The Wachowski Brothers. USA: Warner Bros. Pictures

Wall-e, 2008, [film] Directed by Andrew Stanton. USA: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Westworld, 2016, [TV Series] directed by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. USA: HBO Enterprises and Warner Bros. Television 

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American Cinema, Technology and Cyborg Embodiment