For the most part, we’re used to seeing Hugh Jackman’s characters as champions in their fields, representing the pinnacle of human achievement: A superpowered mutant, a star magician, the original vampire hunter. But in the recent Real Steel, he represents the other end of the spectrum: The boxer past his prime. His character Charlie Kenton gets passed over not because of his age or physical condition (in fact, he’s in prime shape), but because in this future, even the strongest human is useless.
You see this theme reflected in plenty of modern sci-fi and speculative fiction films: Machines, artificial intelligences, and superhumans who far outpace anything normal people can do or dream of. With all the technological advancements, there’s a very relevant fear that overzealous humans will make themselves superfluous. But just like humans, every advanced being is too good to be true; there’s always a flaw in the system.
Unlike other vampire movies, Daybreakers‘ premise doesn’t rely on some mythical bloodsucker. Instead, it’s a plague that transforms most of the Earth’s population into vampires. The human race embraces what they see as a necessary evolution, and harvests the remaining humans for blood. But they retain their human curiosity and self-preservation; Ethan Hawke plays a vampire hematologist searching for a synthetic blood substitute, since their blood supply (who they used to regard as fellow humans) is running out.
Pros: As long as they’re fed, humans can function much the way they used to, but now with super speed and immortality.
Cons: As long as they’re fed. Even evolved beings can’t fully get away from the bloodlust—and if they resist, they start to devolve into base, bat-like subsiders.
Loyal Servants (I, Robot)
We can’t trust other capricious, self-serving humans to labor as our undignified maids and caretakers. So let’s invent robots who won’t think for themselves and will tend to our every need. It’s not like they’ll develop artificial intelligence and start murdering us! …Wait.
Pros: The robots are controlled within the constraints of the Three Laws of Robotics, which preserve human life above all but also ensure that the ‘bots will obey all human orders.
Cons: Without spoiling the movie, I’ll just say that when you give robots rules and A.I., they’ll be compelled to think outside of the box.
Everlasting Children and Dream Lovers (A.I. Artificial Intelligence)
By contrast, the mechas in A.I. are created with the express purpose of mimicking human emotion and resembling loved ones—in the case of Haley Joel Osment, it’s as the ideal little boy. But the mechas’ creators take the definition of “love” to all of its extremes, which brings about one of the movie’s more laughable characters: Gigolo Joe (Jude Law = perfect casting), a love bot.
Pros: They’ll do everything in their power to make you happy, even at their own peril or heartbreak.
Cons: Even when you lose most of the world’s population due to the polar ice caps melting, nothing is a substitute for the real thing.
Indestructible Security Blankets (Surrogates)
Surrogates is a movie for the agoraphobic: A cautionary tale about humans interacting with each other through beautiful, ageless, unflawed shells. With surrogates doing their jobs better than they can, not to mention partying hard without any consequences, humans have no reasons to leave their houses—and no reason to maintain their real bodies. If a surrogate gets damaged, they just boot up a new one.
Pros: You’re young and beautiful forever; you can take crazy drugs and jump off roofs; you have an inexhaustible supply of bodies.
Cons: Your real body grows flabby and atrophied the longer you stay in your little shell. If your surrogate malfunctions and you have to rely on your body, shaky legs and weakness to sunlight won’t help your case. Also, it’s possible to kill people through destroying their surrogates, so really you’re never actually safe.
Our Best Possible Selves (Gattaca)
This is the only entry that’s still human… mostly. In a future where parents liberally use eugenics to breed offspring with intelligence, stamina, and no health defects, an “invalid”—a person conceived without any genetic tampering—passes himself off as a “valid” to fulfill his dream of joining the space missions to Saturn’s moon Titan. Yep, that’s Ethan Hawke again; he’s played both ends of the spectrum, from the weakling without any advantages to what could be the next phase of human evolution.
Pros: All you need to get your dream job is a DNA test.
Cons: Because you were born with every advantage, if you fail to live up to your potential you’ll be plunged into the darkest depression.
Super Fighters (Real Steel)
The film’s been jokingly referred to as Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots: The Movie, and most of the fight scenes fit that description. But just like Rocky and other inspirational fight movies, you still have the beefed-up-beyond-belief champion versus the scrawny underdog.
Pros: These guys can take the mother of all beatings—you’ll see heads flying, arms ripped from sockets—and the crowd just keeps cheering.
Cons: They’re operated by humans who are too far removed from the fight to anticipate an unexpected move. So you have strength but only a limited ability to learn.
Natalie Zutter is a playwright, foodie, and aspiring comic book writer. She’s currently the Associate Editor at Crushable, where she discusses movies, celebrity culture, and internet memes. You can find her on Twitter @nataliezutter.