Movie cyborgs, sci-fi, and what’s really going on

Rob examines the cyborgs of RoboCop, Terminator: Salvation, Doctor Who, Elysium, Star Trek and more...

Science fiction movies have long been recognised as presenting views of our future as means to offer commentary on the present. Whether it be utopia or dystopia (or both), sci-fi films almost always have something to say.

Several things have changed in the last few decades of sci-fi cinema – representation of the media is one thing that has shifted notably, like the transition from the uncaring newsreaders and ludicrous adverts in the original RoboCop to the green-screen preaching by Samuel L Jackson in the recent remake.

The representation of crime and violence in sci-fi has notably changed from the ultra-violent 1980s to the lucrative modern 12A style sci-fi, unless you’re watching a Blomkamp original. You need only look at the differences between Paul Verhoeven’s original versions of Total Recall and RoboCop next to their modern equivalents to see how our vision of the future has changed from violent and weird to shiny and cool in recent years.

However, while our views on society might differ over the years, certain elements always remain. Cyborgs have been as big a part of sci-fi as silly outfits and spaceships for as long as history can remember.

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Edgar Allen Poe’s The Man That Was Used Up short story from 1843 is often suggested as the oldest record of the man-meets-machine hybrid in fiction. This saw a man revered for his skills in battle before revealing that he is actually not a man at all, but a prosthesis made up of several component parts.

Ever since, cyborgs have grown as part of our society’s hive mind, seeping into uncountable stories and movies throughout the ages and outlasting any comment on the media or industry of any particular age. There’s no set way to portray this man and machine mixture, and maybe that’s what makes them so interesting.

We looked on in horror at the first look under Darth Vader’s robotic head, we looked up to RoboCop as a hero cutting through corporate corruption – cyborg characters really can go either way. Good or evil, a cyborg is a clean slate as much as any human character. So what do they stand for? If cyborgs are as old as the film industry itself, and their home genre -sci-fi – is one of the most socially-reflective genres in fiction, surely there must be some juicy underlying message in there somewhere.

Although word limits can’t allow for comparing and contrasting every cyborg story since 1843, here I’m going to look at the definitive cyborgs from film and television of my lifetime and try to piece together what it all means as a whole…

‘Your move, creep’: Cyborgs saving the world

RoboCop is a character whose bloody origins I have only delved into recently. Although the reviews for the remake had made me aware of the original RoboCop’s ultra-violent nature, I actually found myself more shocked and taken aback by quite how fierce the social satire in the film was. 

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Verhoeven’s vision of the future is a world where the ‘Nukem!’ board-game raises no eyebrows, criminals run riot in the streets and a huge corporation buys out the police force, only to accidentally kill someone in a board meeting soon after. Again, very few eyebrows were raised at that.

These moments present a social comment on the 1980s period which they were scripted in. While ‘Nukem!’ presents a parody of Cold War paranoia, the actions of Omni Consumer Products reflect the financial elitism and corporate decadence of the era which has since seeped into uncountable 1980s-set films including American Psycho and The Wolf Of Wall Street.

I was surprised to realise though, that Murphy’s robotic reincarnation isn’t actually a part of the satire, but the solution to it. Yes, moral questions are raised around the ethics of this particular technological advancement, but Verhoeven’s main concerns are centred on corporate greed, the rise of criminal gangs and the society’s desensitisation to violence.

While these points of social warning don’t hinge around cybernetics, the character of RoboCop uses his honest (if very murderous) quest for justice to bring about some correction. Despite being himself a product of corporate greed, RoboCop finds a strong moral compass and rebels against his programming to stop Omni Consumer Products second-in-command Dick Jones and his money-grabbing, highly unethical schemes.

The scene where company president ‘the Old Man’ fires Dick, allowing RoboCop to defeat him, shows a shifting attitude amongst humanity that patrolling killer robots and evil businessmen might not be the best thing. When asked his name soon after, RoboCop replies ‘Murphy’, his previous human surname. RoboCop and Omni Consumer Products have both found a sliver of humanity out of all the violence.

As a blend between man and machine, RoboCop effectively delivers the message that technology and monetary gain aren’t nearly as important as justice and standing up for what’s right, whatever your programming.

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This type of cyborg character, the good-hearted helper who shows society the way forward, has become a popular trope in other sci-fi films too. After three instalments showing man hunted by unstoppable machines of its own creation, the Terminator franchise portrayed Sam Worthington’s Marcus character as a spark which might bring about a resolution in the 2009 follow-up Terminator Salvation.

Revealed as a cyborg quite late in the film, Marcus too rebels against his evil programming to help society aim towards betterment. Despite being programmed by Skynet to lure Christian Bale’s John Connor into trouble, Marcus removes his Skynet tech, assists the hero and even sacrifices his own life by giving his heart to save John.

While the Terminator series might be an allegory for dependence on technology, the character of Marcus delivers a broader message. Like RoboCop, Marcus shows how selflessness and standing up for what’s right can bring about redemption for humanity and society, despite how dire the situation might seem at the start of the film. By blending man and machine, he shows how selflessness and strong morals are more important to society than anything else.

Similarly to Robocop and Terminator Salvation, Will Smith’s Del Spooner character in I, Robot is a cyborg that helps society take big steps towards peace, despite the problems between man and machine. Again, Spooner is revealed as having cyborg-like bionic enhancements quite far into the movie. As a plot of murder, corporate cover-ups and morally questionable robots unfolds, Spooner steps up as a mix between man and machine that can show what is right for society.

Whereas Marcus and Murphy take small steps towards a peaceful society, Spooner actually achieves more in not only bringing down and evil A.I. and solving a murder mystery, but also freeing the Ns5 robots from evil control and allowing them to start their own independent society. The film reveals that Spooner’s enhancements are a result of him being saved by a robot after a car accident, which has made him paranoid and untrusting of modern technology.

This character, still digging 2000s fashions and refusing to get with the times, is a representation of people who don’t embrace technology and change. Once revealed though, his bionic enhancements help lead towards the happy conclusion to the film, representing how embracing the modern age, not dwelling on the past, is the right way forward for society.

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These three films present one form of message from cyborg movies, where good-hearted cyborgs show the way to peace and freedom in a future society where violence is rife and humans and robots are failing to live in peace. A similar plot plays out in Elysium where Matt Damon’s Max character receives bionic improvements which aid him to bring down the corrupt elitist government officials (and their robotic henchmen) that are refusing to help the earth’s impoverished and diseased population.

Despite flashes of era-specific message-toting and parody, these films offer a broader warning of corporations as shady and untrustworthy and technological advancements without a human element as a dangerous and uncontrollable problem. In these films the cyborg characters represent justice and compromise – bringing together the human and robot elements from society and combining them with an honest heart to bring about, or at least hint towards, a peaceful resolution.

‘Resistance is futile’: Cyborgs taking over the world

On the other side of the coin, certain cyborg narratives have shown the man-machine blend as a dangerous and corruptive force. Another instrumental movie in my understanding of cyborg cinema is Star Trek: First Contact from 1996.

The representation of cyborgs in this movie couldn’t be more different to the gun-toting justice enforcing of RoboCop and the other movies discussed earlier. The Borg travel the universe aiming to conquer it by assimilating people into their collective consciousness.

The film throws up an interesting contrast by showing both Captain Picard’s horrific memories of being assimilated into the Borg years prior and his faithful android ally Data given human characteristics by the Borg Queen. Neither of these mixtures is shown in a positive light, and both treatments are a visualisation of the Borg’s desire to corrupt good honest characters onto the side of evil.

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The Borg attempting to corrupt Data is just one part of their plan for conquering Earth, which in this film includes a plot to undo centuries of human development by time-travelling back to halt a huge scientific advancement – the invention of warp-speed travel.

Unlike RoboCop, Terminator Salvation and I, Robot, which show the blend of humanity and cybernetics as a means to help fix society, the Borg are presented as one of the strongest forces for evil in the galaxy aiming to purge emotion and human individuality. Speculation is rife for what this could represent – rampant capitalist control, Neo Nazism or even extremist religious groups, which some corners of the internet like to argue about.

Personally, I see the Borg as an exaggerated reflection of America’s fear of communism – the Borg are unstoppable and sweep through the universe removing free-will and creating silent conformity. An interesting Reditt post ‘The federation was almost The Borg’ (seriously, Google it), discusses how the Borg can also be read as socially reflective of the history within the fictional Star Trek universe, where mankind too has meddled with genetic enhancements and removing human flaws.

We can see then that the narrative of First Contact is an adaptable representation of the importance of human emotion, which can be twisted to fit all manner of social commentaries from religious to political and even fictional.

Like the inverse of RoboCop, Data must be strong to not give in and let new-found emotions control him. By grafting human skin onto him, the Borg Queen had hoped to encourage him to betray Picard. Good wins out when strong-willed, morally correct crew members, human or android, resist the urge to give support the Borg’s evil plan. Unlike the other films which showed cyborgs as the answer, here established heroes must provide the solution by staying strong-willed.

This representation of cyborgs as an evil corruptive force which must be stopped is a prevalent feature through science fiction on television too. Doctor Who in particular has used the idea of machines taking ordinary humans, purging their emotion and turning them into killing machines as a key part of the show’s lifeblood for decades.

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When the Cybermen first appeared in Nu-Who in 2007’s two-parter Rise Of The Cybermen/Age Of Steel, they were newly portrayed as a product of corporate greed. They were created in a parallel universe by Cybus Industries, who use ear-pieces to force feed media to the masses, and later aim to assassinate the UK President and assimilate the world’s population.

This episode, like many, hinges around the removal of human creativity, imagination and emotion. The Doctor is hugely against this and goes to great lengths to stop them, even if it means torturing them and forcing them to die. The individuality of ‘any idiot’ is mentioned by the Doctor as a means to save the world, referring to Mickey’s miraculous computer skills and presenting an important message about being yourself, not one of the crowd.

When a different batch of Cybermen appear in Closing Time, human emotion takes centre stage again. Not just the loss of it as a product of the Cybermen’s evil, but the strength of it to bring them down. Even when Craig (James Cordon) is finished being converted into the new Cyber-controller, the sound of his baby crying still invokes a powerful emotional response. So powerful that he ‘blows them up with love’ and becomes human again, saving the world and becoming a more confident father in the process.

Like First Contact, this is another example of the morally strong and emotional protagonists preventing cyborgs from achieving their plans for worldwide assimilation. Although Age of Steel carries a loose social message about dependence on technology and society’s desire for the ‘ultimate upgrade’, these Cybermen stories share another broader message about the importance of individuality in humanity. This is another purpose for cyborg movies, not to show cyborgs as a solution to our problems, but as an adversary which must be stopped by the best of mankind.

It’s interesting to consider that, while moments of era-specific social comment appear in most of these films, whether through blue-tooth headsets or parody advertisements, there is a broader narrative at play which ties all these movies together.

The cyborg movies of my lifetime share a message that humanity must better itself and move away from corruption and being controlled by others. In some films like RoboCop, I, Robot, Terminator Salvation and Elysium, cybernetic enhancements are given to good-hearted people and help them move towards a peaceful future for mankind.

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In a different type of cyborg narrative, featured in Star Trek: First Contact and countless Doctor Who stories, cyborgs are an adversary using their advantage to remove human individuality and create one emotionless race instead.

Seven of Nine, a character in Star Trek: Voyager also tackles this plot in reverse by trying to become human again after assimilation. These stories force the best out of the human characters that must resist evil and stop the assimilation threat.

Both types of cyborg narrative aim to correct the ills of their respective fictional societies by stopping the aggressor, whether they are corrupt corporations, evil A.I., dodgy government officials or the cyborgs themselves, from taking/keeping control of society through their greed, selfishness or assimilation skills.

Cyborg films then, from my experience, are about overcoming oppression through strong morals and individuality. There’s no greater message in cyborg fiction than the importance of being yourself, and not being controlled by anyone else. If you think otherwise, feel free to have your say in the comments below…

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