Part man, part machine—the ultimate expression of humanity’s dominion over nature—cyborgs have been a staple of popular culture since they were unleashed in a short story by Edgar Allen Poe 175 years ago.
Today they walk among us, in our movie theaters and in the real world, where pacemakers are prolonging lives and prostheses are helping paralympians win gold medals.
More plausible than zombies or interstellar travel, cyborgs offer sci-fi fans a glimpse of a future that is already upon us, speaking to ancient paranoias about untrammeled technology wielded without responsibility.
“I worry a lot more about human beings than tech,” says Leigh Whannell, the writer of the best Saw movies and the entire Insidious franchise, whose cyborg thriller Upgrade hits US theaters on Friday.
“Even my fears about tech have to do with human beings. We are the ones creating this stuff, the great minds of tech, from Elon Musk to Steve Jobs, at one time,” the 41-year-old Australian tells AFP.
“These are the minds that are able to conceive and build these worlds and I’m worried about our tendencies.”
A cyborg—short for “cybernetic organism”—is a person with restored or enhanced mechanical or electrical body parts, typically giving them abilities beyond those of normal humans.
They are not to be confused with androids, robots that have been made to appear human. So the Terminator, for example, doesn’t count—but Robocop does.
Their first appearance in fiction is generally credited to the 1843 Poe short story The Man That Was Used Up, which describes a disabled war veteran with extensive prostheses.
Upgrade is the latest of several dozen mainstream cyborg, android and robot movies made since 1980, with Box Office Mojo attributing an average North American box office among the wide releases of about $100 million.
Cyborgs have been good guys and baddies down the years, from The Six Million Dollar Man through Inspector Gadget and perhaps the most iconic cyborg of them all, Darth Vader.
They continue to captivate, says Whannell, because they tap into a persistent dread about augmented reality, artificial intelligence and other advances—that the technology is gradually becoming our master.
Whannell uses the example of his smartphone, which makes him anxious whenever he opens it and checks the news. And it’s the messenger, not the message, that’s the problem.
“You could say smartphones are a first world problem, like people in Syria aren’t worried about Twitter, they’ve got bigger things to worry about,” the Australian tells AFP.
“But I think that there is an undercurrent of anxiety in modern society that has to do with our reliance on tech and the bombardment of information that comes from it.”
In Upgrade, curmudgeonly mechanic Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), a technophobe sore thumb in a digital near-future, takes his wife Asha as he delivers a restored classic car to tech billionaire Erin King.
On their way home their self-driving car crashes and they are attacked by a gang who shoot dead Asha (Melanie Vallejo) and leave Grey a quadriplegic.
King (Harrison Gilbertson) visits Grey in hospital and convinces him that his cutting-edge computer chip—he calls it “Stem” —will help him regain control over his ravaged body.
Stem operates like a souped-up Siri, speaking in a voice only Trace can hear and able to operate his body independently, turning him into a cross between Usain Bolt and Bruce Lee.