Sunday, October 4, 2009

Not-So-Brave, Not-So-New World: Surrogates

The amazingly brilliant and frightening aspect of Surrogates, the cheesy, derivative, blandly performed sci-fi movie starring Bruce Willis, is that if the surrogate technology depicted in the film were available today, many Americans would definitely buy it and use it. Just think how many people would rather stay at home and send a handsomer or more beautiful, sexier, more athletic surrogate body out to do the errands, go to work, and pick up dates! With half-hearted CGI, boring action sequences, and a skimpy, unimaginative plot, Surrogates is another one of the year’s flops, but its basic premise got me thinking about all the ramifications of life in a world with this sort of technology – even though this shallow film leaves most of these ramifications unexplored. (The best science fiction stories create a detailed new world whose workings are clearly fleshed out.)

(Here there be spoilers.)

Some fascinating thoughts:

Peters, the female detective partner of Tom Greer (Bruce Willis), has selected the beautiful Radha Mitchell as her surrogate body. Meanwhile, the real Peters is a withered, gray, crippled woman. This led to all sorts of thoughts about how people would definitely use the surrogate technology to escape reality, but many would use it to overcome barriers that prevent people who are unattractive or obese or agoraphobic from succeeding at many sorts of jobs or being accepted socially.

Of course, the down side is that the technology would allow people to be lazy slobs, and enable them if they are obese or reclusive. The sad thing is that there are so many people who want the easy fix. The surrogate technology is definitely the easy way out, and the scary thing is people would love it.

Of course, the greatest benefit of this new technology would be for the physically handicapped. A quadriplegic could walk, run, dance, climb mountains, whatever he or she wanted to do. Someone born with genetic defects could inhabit a normal body.

As it turns out, the sleazy woman that Canter’s son picks up at the night club turns out to be the surrogate body of a man. This is an interesting element. This technology would make gender crossovers a cinch - for the rest of one's life or for short periods of time. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be the opposite sex - not forever, just for the experience? Well, surrogate technology gives you that chance.

The surrogate technology would be like living in a video game. Just look at all the people who already live in video games. So, you could experience the thrills of climbing El Capitan without the risk. If you fall, you buy another surrogate body. (Surrogate body shops would do a booming business in Yosemite Valley.) In the same way I enjoy a ride at Disneyland, I might be tempted to try this form of alternate reality. I’m not a gamer, so I wouldn’t do it that often. But look at all the people already addicted to the sham worlds of video games. The route to Mount Everest would be hopelessly crowded with surrogate climbers.

The military is already using remote-control scouts that go into buildings before the real soldiers do. Here in this film, we see soldiers training with surrogate bodies and a huge auditorium of soldiers in control chairs running their surrogate soldier selves on a “peace keeping” mission. This premise is explored in Joe Haldeman’s novels The Forever War and Forever Peace. As described on the jacket cover, wars are “fought by ‘soldierboys’ – remote control war machines run by soldiers hundreds of miles away.” Of course, the enemy would have this technology too and, as explored in the film, a device (it looks like one of those hand-held computers the UPS guy uses) that could zap the user along with the surrogate would be a much sought after invention.

A final thought – and this is reflected in the film’s best scene – as more and more people use surrogates, you’re going to feel really weird if you go to work without a surrogate – I mean, really go to work. It would be a creepy experience. As Greer is walking down the street, he starts freaking out when he sees that all the lifelike surrogates around him are lifeless automatons. Like, what if you had to spend the whole day with the animatronic characters from Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride?

Just creepy –

Jet-set surrogate users have parties in which their surrogates zap each other with a device that looks like a transparent penis with a vagina in it. This, apparently, causes a highly addictive, orgasmic sensation. Creepy but hilarious! Remember the orb of pleasure in Sleeper?

Problematic –

There are all sorts of plot loopholes in this film, but the biggest stretch of your imagination you are expected to endure is its climax. After the most ridiculous scene ever filmed involving a lethal computer virus aborted in the nick of time, Greer shuts off all the surrogates in the country (actually, in the world, but let’s just focus on the U.S.). All the surrogates fall down. We see a few car crashes. Later, we learn there are no human fatalities. This is preposterous! The amount of traffic accidents all across the country would be apocalyptic! And what about busses, trains, and airplanes? You mean, nothing crashes into a house where a user is lying in his chair?

And then, I thought, how sad. What about all the handicapped people who were using surrogates? Well, maybe new regulations allow surrogates to be used in special cases. With a sketchy movie like this that does little to develop some very interesting elements of its world, you can imagine whatever you want!

A related story:

On June 21, 2008, my wife was strolling through downtown Boston. (She remembers the exact date because she had taken our son and his friend there for Go Skateboarding Day.) Turning onto a side street, she saw what she thought was the aftermath of an accident: cars piled up and people lying around on the sidewalk. Then she looked up and saw the cameras and film crew. Guess what film they were shooting?


FilmDr said...

Interesting thoughts. Gamer explores some of the same themes, and it also has a female avatar operated by a man. Given its relevance to contemporary media, plastic surgery, and our culture's emphasis on youthful good looks, Surrogates could have been one of the best films of the late summer, but the film suffers due to its conventionality and its emphasis on robots. They can't act very well, and they aren't all that compelling to watch. At times, I was reminded of Gattaca. It seems to me that, ironically, dystopic films are rapidly becoming the most cliched of any contemporary genre.

Hokahey said...

Thanks for the thoughts, FilmDr. You're right about dystopian worlds being very cliched in films these days. Huxley and Orwell kind of covered it all, and most dystopian societies in recent films explore the virtual reality aspect of technology. But as I said, that was the aspect about Surrogates that fascinated me because it seems that we are already there in certain respects - for example, the amount of involvement in computer games. I have students whose involvment in something like World of Warcraft is pathological. As for Gattaca, that's a great movie - much better than Surrogates.

Daniel Getahun said...

Hehe, I kind of wish I would have seen this so as to get into another back-and-forth about all the logic details, a la Knowing. Looks like you hit a big one on the head with the lack of human death when the surrogates are shut down. I hate when they try to slide stuff by like that.

And how shocking for your wife to see that scene before realizing it was a film set!

Hokahey said...

Daniel, I like the back and forth on logic. You could have a field day with Surrogates. As for Knowing, it's still one of my favorite movies of the year. But we allow favorite movies to be illogical at times.

Daniel Getahun said...

Ain't that the truth - and ain't that the fun of loving movies, anyway?

Sometimes the more someone bashes one of your favorites the more admiration you have for it.

Hokahey said...

Daniel, yes, I remain loyal. I remained loyal to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which I loved, and held to my opinion in the face of many counter-arguments. The beauty of film is that it can touch people in different ways. And sometimes I get a perverse joy out of loving movies no one else likes. It makes it a special, personal experience. And here's a big secret - I have to say I love Heaven's Gate (well, I love enough of it to embrace the whole thing; I can admit it's faults, but I still love it). I watch it at least once a year.