TCS Daily


'X' Marks the Spot

By James Pinkerton - May 2, 2003 12:00 AM

Like all science fiction, "X-2: X-Men United," the new movie opening Friday, is as much about the present as it is about the future. But the present is changing rapidly. Forty years ago, Stan Lee's concern for civil rights and racial equality inspired him to create the "X-Men" characters series. But today, new concerns, such as the impact of scientific research on the future of human evolution, threaten to overshadow those old concerns. Indeed, as this second "X-Men" film argues, the big issue of the future will be the superiority of certain future humans. Maybe that's something we should at least be thinking about now.

In 1963, cartoonist/visionary Lee intended his X-creations to serve as lessons about racial tolerance in America. The X-Men (and Women) were a minority of mutants, and as such, they suffered prejudice. But of course, they have their superpowers, and thereby hangs four decades' worth of tales-in comic books, cartoons and, now, two movies. Film director Bryan Singer declares: "The story of the X-Men is quite political. It's about differences and similarities. Because the comic was born from the tumult of the '60s, there are political and sociological issues and messages inherent in the X-Men lore."

But one irony of the movie series, as it has evolved, is that the X-People look less like underdogs and more like overdogs. As the first film, released in 2000, explained, homo sapiens was being challenged by the X-ers, who are, thanks to radiation and other factors, mutating upward into a new species, dubbed homo superior. As one character said three years ago, "There's a war coming." And so while director Singer can assert that his movies are about "tolerance," it seems more apt to say that they are about the eclipse of the human race as we have come to know it these past 35,000 years. And oddly, the film seems to be rooting for the victory of the new mutant-kids on the block.

The new film is explicit: "The war has begun," declares one character. Indeed, the movie starts off with the attempted assassination of the President of the United States by mutant X-Men. And yet, curiously, even in the wake of an attack on the Oval Office, the film views any attempt by regular old humans to police the new humans as an outrageous suppression of civil liberties. Meanwhile, the trans-humans, super-empowered in various kinds-from the ability to start storms and fires with a glance to the capacity to protrude claws and heal wounds immediately-stoke themselves on Nietzschean superman-type ideology. "You are a god among insects; don't let anyone tell you different," says one X-mentor.

In the first movie, the X-Folk were divided, good vs. evil. The good X-ers were led by Professor Xavier, battling the bad X-ers, led by Magneto. Yet in this sequel, as the "united" in the title suggests, the Xavierians and the Magnetoans are ultimately on the same side, trashing the U.S. government's homeland security operation and killing or injuring many American soldiers and cops.

And thus the X-series inverts itself. Forty years ago, Lee's concern was that people who were "different"-albeit in an obviously cool way-were not mistreated by racists. Today, the filmmakers seem inspired by the idea that "different" folks are fully liberated to do as they please-including, as the mood strikes them, to lord it over their evolutionary predecessors. In other words, "X" is no longer a parable of tolerance, but rather a chronicle of intolerance, as the strong dominate the weak.

Some on the political right might see "X-2" as a parable for affirmative action and racial quotas gone berserk. That is, those who once suffered from discrimination are now privileged by reverse discrimination. Yet while that interpretation can find justification in the film, it's hard to imagine that the Hollywood filmmakers had such an illiberal message in mind. More likely, the anti-preference moral of the film might is an unintended consequence.

But there's another message in the movie, one that owes less to 1963 and more to 2003. It's about the onrushing biotech future, which is going to make huge changes in social relations. That is, if and when-most likely, when-mutations start to break out, existing notions of human equality will be undermined. People will be so different that there's no way they will be equal. Indeed, their differences will be so enormous that they won't much like either much, as they stare and glare at each other across the equality-chasm.

But could Hollywood really make such a film? Isn't Hollywood a bastion of liberalism? Sure it is. But while moviemakers tend to define themselves on the political left, they are hardly egalitarian. When was the last time anybody in Beverly Hills offered to share his or her mansion with the homeless?

Indeed, the most visible of all West Coast enthusiasms, environmentalism, is sometimes a cover for the true ism, which is, of course, elitism. Malibu's David Geffen was last seen suing the state of California in order to keep his fellow Golden Staters from gaining access to public beaches near his Pacific-ocean-overlooking property. If that's the prevailing view from Sunset Boulevard, then it's not so impossible to understand how a film positing a caste system could be greenlighted by a big studio.

OK. So Hollywood fabulists, free-forming Lee's original X-conception, have conjured a brave new world in which mostly cool homo superiors one-up the mostly uncool homo sapiens. Is this a plausible scenario for the future? Is it possible to imagine such "humutations" really occurring?

Many will say that we're getting to that future already. Already, various technologies, from the "wetware" of stem cell research to the "hardware" of robots, continue to be developed. In a world where Moore's Law has not yet been repealed, is it really so hard to imagine the creation of a superhuman in a decade or two?

Different experts love or loathe such scenarios. One of the lovers is UCLA's Greg Stock, author of Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future. One of the loathers is Johns Hopkins' Francis Fukuyama, who wrote Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution.

The current Bush administration is torn on these issues. On the one hand, the Bushmen have a Fukuyama-esque traditional-values-based suspicion of radical bio-engineering. Yet on the other hand, they are mostly supportive of private-sector entrepreneurialism, knowing full well that such a dynamic process leads to the unpredictability of outcomes that might well include the outcomes described by Stock. So while Uncle Sam probably will not directly fund research aimed at achieving exotic results, the ultimate consequence of wide-open inquiry could prove X-otic indeed.

And of course, the contours of the human future aren't being shaped just in America. The United Kingdom, for example, has much looser laws concerning biotech research; on April 25, no less than Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal in which he celebrated the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA. The not-so-subtle thrust of the piece was that if the U.S. wished to stymie stem cell research, such researchers were welcome across the Atlantic. "We cannot afford to overlook the potential these cells hold for treating chronic, incurable diseases," Blair argued. And several American scientists have, in fact, left for the laxer regulatory environment of England.

Beyond a fellow English-speaking country, the future of biotech research is an even blacker box, an even more enigmatic riddle, more inscrutable puzzle. What's going on right now in Russia? Or Singapore? Or China? Does anybody know? Of course not.

Right now, the Beijing regime is likely to be preoccupied with SARS. But what conclusions might the Chinese draw from this medical debacle about the importance of better medical research? Will they play by our biotech rules, or theirs? And might they use their discoveries to help themselves-or to hurt us?

Which is the point about science fiction. In predicting the future, it also describes the present. But since the present is full of national rivalries, even hostilities, it's a cinch that bio-secrets are being held close. So we'll have to travel ahead through time in order to know for sure what's been going on right now, all around us. And that could be a scary trip.

Such techno-military issues are an "X-Factor" on our national strategic horizon. Can we ignore such possibilities, as our restrictive laws and morals squash discovery and maybe encourage our best and brightest to head to other countries? Or should we prepare ourselves for a "bio-arms race" through more energetic research programs here at home? A Hollywood movie may seem like a silly vehicle through which to enter such an important policy debate, but as a starting point for consideration of next-gen human beings, "X" does, indeed, mark the spot.
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