Technological advancement is perhaps the most common theme in science fiction, and is presented in both positive and negative lights. In films such as Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996), the technological advancements depicted in the United States’ underground military bases and the alien technology preserved in Area 51 are presented in a good light, and ultimately result in the humans successfully defeating an invasion from outer space. However, more often than not, technology is vilified as something volatile.
What is it specifically that frightens us so much about technology? Many might answer that the fear lies in the possibility of machinery eventually becoming smarter than their creators. But, aside from the sensational (and admittedly less-than-credible) theory presented in The Matrix (Andy Wachowski, 2009), in which world destruction and human enslavement result from a war with artificial intelligence, what about the thought of smart technology frightens us? The answer is loss of self.
The kind of loss differs depending on the film, and sometimes this theme is but an undercurrent to a larger and more attention-grabbing plot, but, for those who look closely enough, a pattern begins to develop. The protagonist encounters a technologically advanced device/weapon/practice that then results in the protagonist losing either a part or the whole of his or her identity. Three films, namely Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004), District 9 (Neil Blomkamp, 2009), and Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009) present this chilling loss of self in dramatically different ways.
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Lacuna, a covert medical practice which deals in the process of erasing painful or unwanted memories from its patients, is initially represented as a source of relief. Its revolutionary mind-wiping equipment is offered as a cure-all that promises a new life for Joel Barish after his ex-girlfriend, Clementine Kruczynski, erases him from her memory. However, as Joel succumbs to the anesthesia and the process of mind-wiping begins, he realizes that he does not want to lose his memories of Clementine. The majority of the film is spent inside Joel’s head, following him as he attempts to retain the part of himself which Lacuna is trying to erase. Likewise, Clementine, who has already gone through the process of mind-wiping, laments in a crucial scene that she is “disappearing”, that she “isn’t herself”. As a result of Lacuna’s technology, Joel and Clementine lose parts of themselves.
In District 9, the audience follows the protagonist, Wikus Van De Merwe, through a process of physical transformation after contact with a biotechnological chemical produced by the aliens. In District 9, the loss of self is a main component to the plotline, and is also shown more literally than in any other film. Blomkamp is unapologetic in his exploration of this fear. Is there a more terrifying way to lose one’s identity than to be completely and irrevocably transformed into another species? The rest of the film world shares this terror, and the fear of the loss of self shows itself as other characters react negatively and hostilely to Van De Merwe’s transformation.
Finally, in Moon, the science fiction element would at first be considered to be the ability to harvest energy from the moon, the advanced space station, and GERTY, the protagonist’s robotic companion. However, these are merely the backdrop for the real conflict of the film: Sam Bell discovers that he is a clone of the real Sam Bell – one of many, in fact – and that after three years of service on the space station, he is going to be incinerated and a new clone is going to take his place. His entire identity is lost, thanks to the advanced technology that enabled Lunar to clone the original Sam. This conflict is emphasized even further when the clone attempts to call home and sees the young girl he thought was his daughter interacting with her real father.
While none of these films end happily, all three are given a semblance of resolution and hint at a hope for the future in the same way: all the protagonists manage to recover, retain, or discover their sense of self despite the circumstances. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Joel and Clementine receive cassette recordings of their past memories in the mail and manage to start up a second tentative relationship, finding themselves & each other despite the damage Lacuna has done to their memories.
In District 9, the last scene is of Van De Merwe, completely transformed into an alien, sitting in a heap of garbage, making a metal flower out of trash, something that his wife claims he used to do when he was human. He has retained a semblance of his previous self, and we are given the hope that perhaps he has not fully transformed after all.
Finally, Moon’s conclusion is one indicating self-discovery, as one of the Sam clones says to GERTY, “We’re not programs, we’re people”, suggesting that although all identity was stolen from him by the cloning process, the clone has begun the journey to figuring out who and what he really is.
Ultimately, these three films illustrate the larger theme of loss of self through advanced technology in various ways, shapes, and forms. They also demand an answer to this question: if there were no threat to our identities – whether physical, mental, or psychological – would the thought of highly advanced technology be as frightening?