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.

Here I want to highlight 10 films that showcase transhumanist ideas in interesting ways. These may not all be great films in a general sense (although many are!), but they all are interesting to watch from a transhumanist perspective.

So let’s go over my personal top ten transhumanist films and find you a some weekend popcorn fodder.

10. Transcendence (2014)

As a movie, Transcendence isn’t exactly bad, but it’s unlikely to go down in cinematic history as a masterpiece. It is, however, one of the most complete cinematic explorations of transhumanist ideas you can watch so far.

The title of the film is actually a direct reference to the Singularity, on which I have a separate article elsewhere on the site. It follows the work of a scientist that is researching the nature of sentience as it relates to AI. The movie’s plot revolves around the lead scientist being poisoned with polonium by a Luddite group of terrorists. This forces them to upload his mind into his AI technology. Transcendence depicts almost the full gamut of transhumanism. We get to see lots of nano- and bio-technology, and it’s more an ideas-driven thinkpiece given the Hollywood treatment rather than a summer blockbuster.

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9. Morgan (2016)

Morgan is another example of a film that’s not so great from a critical point of view, but puts some very interesting and very real ideas out into the mainstream. In a move similar to Dr. Craig Venter’s wholly artificial bacteria, a team of scientists in Morgan create a new type of creature – one that’s far smarter and more physically capable than a human being.

The film starts with the titular Morgan violently assaulting a member of the research team; a specialist is dispatched to assess the situation and decide if Morgan should be terminated or not. It’s an average film with above average ideas, but it’s actually worth watching just for the scene where Paul Giamatti’s character does a psych evaluation of Morgan. Giamatti just kills it in that scene.

The artificial life and biotechnology themes make Morgan a good addition to this list, although it’s a film you may want to rent instead of buy.

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8. Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Yes, this is the original theatrical film directed by Mamoru Oshii and released in the West. While I think the graphics novel and later animated television series are much better, this is still a fantastic movie and still the best cinematic product from the Ghost in the Shell franchise. In the world of Ghost in the Shell, almost everyone is a cyborg. At the very least, people have a “cyberbrain”, which is an augmented human brain giving them access to online networks and other day-to-day functions. Entire brains can be moved between cyborg bodies, but minds can be uploaded and transferred as well.

The movie follows the exploits of a special police unit, known as “Section 9”, that pursues criminals who operate in this world of extreme high-tech and hacker conspiracies. While not the best example of Ghost in the Shell as a whole, it’s a film that every person who has an interest in a transhumanist future should watch.

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7. Splice (2009)

I’ve written about human-animal hybrids in a number of places elsewhere on the site, but it’s not something that’s shown too often in film. Apart from being a really good movie, Splice explores a lot of the ethical implications of creating new life remixed from evolved genes on Earth.

While the movie probably doesn’t help much in a world where people have misconceptions about GMO foods and genetic modification in general, it does a fantastic job of bringing home the “otherness” of a creature science has created. It may only be a riff on the age-old Frankenstein’s Monster story, but it’s framed in the context of technologies and techniques that may one day be real.

The linchpin of the plot is the idea that this experimental hybrid was meant to be destroyed before becoming viable. This echoes current practice with hybrid human embryos that must be destroyed before reaching a certain point of development in real-life scientific practice. Splice poses the question of what could happen if we let them go all the way. The truth would probably be much less dramatic, but, after all, it is just a film.

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6. Ex Machina (2015)

Ex Machina is without a doubt one of the smartest films ever made about the dangers and potentials of AI. That’s saying a lot in a genre where artificial intelligence has been done to death. The film is packed with thought-provoking ideas and possibilities. It also depicts technology in such a way that it really feels as if it could be from 20 or 30 years in the future. While a near-future timeline may be more than a little unrealistic for the level of AI Ex Machina shows us, the problems, fears, and implications are all very real.

In terms of the actual film, it’s hard to believe that it’s an indie movie. The special effects are top notch and allow for complete suspension of disbelief. Despite being such a recent film, Ex Machina already deserves to be seen as a Sci-Fi classic and should be in the collection of everyone with an interest in AI.

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5. Expelled from Paradise (2014)

This is another animated film from Japan; it shows how you can be a lot more experimental and high-concept in animated media than in mainstream live-action films. Expelled from Paradise is a very intentional transhumanist film, just as we saw with Transcendence. It also happens to be a much better film, if you are OK with style and genre conventions of animated Japanese Sci-Fi.

It depicts a world where humanity is essentially split up into two factions. On the one hand you have mostly-natural human beings who live on the planet as we do today. The planet itself is not in the greatest shape, but these people make the best of it they can. The other part of humanity has abandoned their physical bodies completely. Instead, they live as digital mind-uploads on powerful servers – the “paradise” that’s referred to in the title.

Interestingly, all uploaded humans have a natural birth, but their infant bodies are destroyed after upload. Their DNA is kept on file though, making it possible for physical bodies to be created if they need to interact with the real world for some reason. That’s exactly what happens to the protagonist of the film, Angela Balzac. She’s sent on a mission by her government that requires a visit to the real world. Someone has managed to hack into their server and is seen as an existential threat to their culture. Angela is tasked with finding the hacker and destroying them.

Expelled from Paradise deals with a wide range of transhumanist topics in a matter-of-fact technique that does not get in the way of the plot. It’s well worth watching.

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4. Robocop (1987)

The original Robocop film by Paul Verhoeven is one of the best sci-fi satires ever made. While I don’t think the 2014 remake is as terrible as people make it out to be, it really does not compare to the original film. Robocop is the product of a time, place, and auteur that you can’t just replicate. It’s also a brilliant transhumanist film. In it we see a police officer who is mortally wounded and has his life saved and extended through “total body prosthesis”. In 1987 this seemed like far-fetched science fiction, but today it’s doesn’t seem all that far off.

This film has so much going for it on many levels, but from a transhumanist perspective it’s important to focus on the questions the film raises about the meaning of being human. Does going through this process make the main character less human? How much of the flesh can you take away before your humanity is lost? For an 80s action film Robocop is surprisingly deep and, with zero doubt in my mind, belongs in everyone’s collection.

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3. Avatar (2009)

You may not immediately think of the James Cameron billion-dollar blockbuster as a transhumanist film. In fact, you’re more likely to hear it called “Dances with Wolves in Space”. The truth is that Avatar is heavily-laden with transhumanist themes and technology. For one thing, the main character is driven to take part in the whole project as a way to pay for the reversal of his paralysis. In the world of Avatar, repairing a spinal injury is not a big deal – it just costs a lot of money.

We also have hybrid human genetics, but with alien biology instead of Earth biology. Mind transfer, space travel, hibernation, advanced robotics, and much more are present and correct. Artificial intelligence and nanotechnology are notably missing, but overall Avatar is a visual masterpiece with a workable plot. As a pure tour-de-force of special effects, showing us what some of these technologies might look like in practice, it’s difficult to beat.

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2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

James Cameron makes this list yet again with his much earlier blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgment Day. While the first Terminator movie is an excellent film, it’s actually a different genre altogether. It’s fits in better with monster movies such as Alien and Predator.

Terminator 2 is a sci-fi adventure film that has an AI cyborg as its central character. Technically, young John Connor is the protagonist, but it’s the terminator that shows the most character growth over the ark of the film. While T2 is an excellent entertainment piece, it also handles deep questions about AI and the possible conflict between humans and the intelligence that they create. Cameron handles the topic with surprising balance and finesse. He doesn’t step into the trap of painting the AIs as purely evil or the humans as faultless. This is a totally essential film for any transhumanist collection.

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1. The Matrix (1999)

There’s not much I can say about The Matrix that hasn’t been said before. As an action film it completely changed the movie industry. After the film’s release, every action movie that came before seemed hopelessly obsolete, and all future movies needed to embrace the high-tech fight cinematography methods the Wachowskis pioneered.

What’s really great about The Matrix is it’s deeply philosophical premise. It deals with everything from AI to living in a simulation. It may be a dystopian film, but it raises the sorts of questions we should be asking regardless of the outcome. The main character has to deal with fundamental questions about reality, humanity, and the choices technology puts before us. It’s also great that the film emphasizes that a lot of what transhumanism offers is practically religious – that these are not just questions of technical ability, but of spiritual importance. The messianic message may be a little heavy-handed at times, but The Matrix could not be as important a film without it.

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