As Transcendence opens in cinemas, we look at the best and worst examples of when man merges with machine to become so much more – or less.
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17 Apr 2014 - 10:51 AM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2015 - 10:27 AM

“It’s alive! It’s alive!”

Ever since Clive Cole’s Dr. Henry Frankenstein used electricity to animate Boris Karloff’s Monster in James Whale’s 1931 horror classic Frankenstein, the intersection of the human body and technology has been a subject of fascination for filmmakers. As science has accelerated from the transistor to the microchip, the idea of plugging in to meld the physical and the digital to create new life and fresh realities has become prevalent. As shown by Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, which opens later this month and features Johnny Depp as an artificial-intelligence researcher who has his brain downloaded into a computer to escape his dying body, the best of intentions unfortunately rarely prevail. When it comes to mind over matter, the following movies shows that humanity is best left version 1.0.

1. Brainstorm, 1983

Remembered as the film Hollywood star Natalie Wood had almost finished shooting before her tragic drowning, Brainstorm follows a group of scientists who have invented a device that records the brain sensations and replays them. Chaos quickly ensures, as a loop of an orgasm and ultimately the experience of dying overtake and divide Wood and Christopher Walken’s desperately repentant researchers as the military tries to confiscate their work. The film is notable for combining technology and religious faith in the finale. Walken essentially sees God, who does not look like Morgan Freeman.

2. The Lawnmower Man, 1992

A film whose garish depictions of virtual reality and a digital existence were as lacking in subtlety as the storyline, The Lawnmower Man is a further example of scientific research gone haywire, with Pierce Brosnan’s scientist using virtual reality experiments and medication to radically change Jeff Fahey’s intellectually disabled gardener. The man’s mind soon bypasses his own body, exhibiting telekinesis and telepathy as the once child-like figure takes revenge on those who previously exploited him. Leonard would go onto make 1995’s Virtuosity, where Russell Crowe’s program escapes a virtual reality simulator and wreaks havoc.

3. Ghost in a Shell, 1995

One of the seminal Japanese anime productions that have spread with virus-like intent through western popular culture, Mamoru Oshii’s manga adaptation delivers an interconnected electronic society where people use cynbernetic bodies (or “shells”). The hunt for a hacker named the Puppet Master reveals a world where identity is fluid and physical forms are literally possessed. With images of female robots that recall Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the film’s elegantly extended character designs pursue a truth that appears impossible to decipher, let alone comprehend.

4. Johnny Mnemonic, 1995

William Gibson’s cyberpunk novels renewed science-fiction publishing and foresaw the internet, but this cheap and fractured adaptation of his early novel, where a courier who carries valuable information in his brain instead of his memories, captures little of his sparse, glittering prose. Visual artist Robert Longo, in his sole directorial feature, has Keanu Reeves, who concentrates very hard, as the titular courier, with a magical supporting cast that includes Dolph Lundgren, Takeshi Kitano and Udo Kier. If only they could have uploaded a decent performance into Keanu’s brain.

5. Strange Days, 1995

Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is a new form of the timeless creature that is the Los Angeles bottom feeder. The former police officer traffics illicit SQUID recordings, which capture someone’s experiences direct from their cerebral cortex and replay them for the user to live through. From the film’s opening point of view shot, where a robbery goes wrong and we cut to the wealthy observer who has just safely experienced it, Kathryn Bigelow’s thriller mixes official corruption and a meditation on memory, as Lenny tries to hold on to his love for Faith (Juliette Lewis), his PJ Harvey-singing ex-girlfriend rock star. No matter what you record, the film suggests, some things only exist in the moment.

6. The Matrix, 1999

In which it turns out mankind is nothing more than a planet-wide battery. Everything slotted together perfectly in the Wachowski’s seminal science-fiction blockbuster, which even made fine use of the aforementioned Mr. Reeves. This is a vision of technology as the ultimate dystopic panacea, with machine rulers keeping human in fields of tanks, where they produce electrical energy while living out virtual lives in the suitably diverting late 20th century. Data flows instantly to the brain, sometimes mid-battle, and the film coincided with the advent of online culture to offer thrillingly conceived scenes and scores of impenetrable theoretical texts.

7. eXistenZ, 1999

As if we could do this without David Cronenberg. The exacting Canadian master made a career out of the body’s modifications, and this 1999 thriller imagines a future where virtual reality video games called game pods attached to users through outlets implanted through spines. Cronenberg gives the technology a tactile, organic feel – no square edges – as Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh play participants at a group testing session that descends into multiple layers of reality that confuses both players and opponents of the game who have infiltrated the meeting.

8. Surrogates, 2009

In a near future America, the majority of people hunker down at home, experiencing the world from inside a robotic humanoid body that lets them remake their image and absolve themselves of responsibility (sound familiar?) Bruce Willis and Radha Mitchell are the FBI agents investigating a conspiracy involving people dying when their surrogate bodies are destroyed, although the real mystery is why Willis’ character, Tom Greer, would choose a surrogate body that looks like Bruce Willis with too much bronzer and a bad wig.

9. Inception, 2010

Corporate espionage enters the subconscious in Christopher Nolan’s city-shifting blockbuster, a literally cerebral work where Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb leads a team seeking to not extract, but implant, an idea in the mind of their target. The technology is almost an afterthought, but the mechanics form rules that allow reality to be altered on the go. The fear is not merely dying while inside the subconscious, but being trapped there, a monarch in your own eternity. Nolan contrasts the action sequences with an otherworldly femme fatal, played by Marion Cotillard, who is the ultimate personification of guilt.

10. The Congress, 2013

The idea of digital synthesis’ has long been discussed, but in Israeli director Ari Folman’s follow-up to Waltz With Bashir they’re a reality, with the ageing, underused actress Robin Wright – played by the ageing, thankfully better used actress Robin Wright – agreeing to sell her digital image to a Hollywood studio and then retire from acting; Wright is replaced by her scan, but 20 years later she baulks at her electronic version becoming a vessel for whoever wishes to inhabit her. A mixture of live action and animation, this is more Charlie Kaufman than Christopher Nolan, but the same rule applies: once you’re plugged in, nothing is guaranteed.