Can a movie be ham handed and clever at once? Can it make a strong, important statement and also have clichéd dialogue, trite turns of plot? Can it be written with almost no nuance but still be vigorously directed? Can it have good ideas and still miss all kinds of ramifications? Oh yes. Surrogates is that movie. In a way, so were movies like The Omega Man, and Logan’s Run and The Island, and Soylent Green and Colossus: The Forbin Project — and so were a good many Twilight Zone episodes. Surrogates is part of that odd subgenre, science fiction film as heavy handed metaphor — and yet the metaphor did, somehow, work, to some extent, in those films. And it does, in Surrogates. But don’t look to it for subtlety. The film has no subtext — it’s text is it’s subtext. It’s all statement, and as if it wasn’t obvious enough they tell you at the beginning, with words on the screen, what its entire theme is. As if it were possible to miss it.
In 2017 an FBI agent played by Bruce Willis does his job, as most people now do theirs, through his surrogate, a younger if somewhat expressionless robot version of himself, to which he connects through a wireless neurological interface. It’s like The Matrix but you know you’re in it, and you’re controlling mechanical versions of yourself that go about the real world; you see what they see, and feel what they feel. They live, and party, as surrogates. They’re powerful and adroit and pretty—everyone is attractive through their surrogate. Billions of people have them, and there’s almost no one on the street who’s not in surrogate form (must be hard on the restaurant industry). You unplug only to eat and go to the bathroom, and sleep. But there’s a “reservation” of people who refuse surrogacy and who think of the robotic extensions as “abominations”: a shotgun wielding thuggish, physically unattractive bunch who worship a black man in dreads called The Prophet (very like someone from The Matrix, himself)…
Surrogates does the science fiction part rather well, in a Westworld/“Data” (in Star Trek: The Next Generation) kind of way. Watching the film you spend a lot of time looking into the faces of surrogates — who are like people, not too stiff, but they are also mannequin-like, too perfect, with no strong expressions. And it has an effect. When they bring in “meatbag” people, as they derisively call real people, they seem oily, gritty, lined, more flawed than they would normally seem. I’d be giving away too much if I described a lot of what this movie does well — amusing extrapolations of Surrogate technology. I’ll just mention that when the FBI agent is forced to walk the streets as a “meatbag” amongst the surrogates, they jostle him, move past him at high speed, because they’re more precise in their movements, they’re faster, and they’re rude — like people on the internet, or people in traffic — humanity distanced from civility by technology. That’s a perfectly good metaphor; so is the agent’s longing for direct physical contact with his wife, denied him because she’ll only be intimate as a surrogate. She’s always young and pretty as a surrogate — and it helps her to be someone else, technologically. It helps her stop thinking about the child they lost to a car accident. If she’s someone else, caught up in that technological insulation — she doesn’t have to grieve.
The film touches on the military use of surrogates — and we see vast rooms where remote controlling soldiers puppet their surrogate fighters through videogame-like interfaces: something that happens in real life, through missile-firing remote controlled drones: it’s so much easier to kill at a distance. Everything is done from a distance, in the world of Surrogates. There’s a layer of technology that seems to enhance life — but only numbs it.
The inevitable action film aspects are snappily handled by director Jonathan Mostow. People are murdered through a new technology (rather lamely explained in the film), which provides some horrific imagery and there are cool scenes where powerful surrogates leap about like Spiderman and crunch cars.
But the film is ultimately about the distancing power of our emerging technology. It’s not about 2017 — it’s really about 2009. None of this metaphorical power is explored with the intelligence found in stronger science-fiction films, like Bladerunner or Rollerball or Children of Men or even the thematically similar WALL-E. But this movie might be more user-friendly — a good double bill with Transformers. It has a mordant sense of humor, and it has a blast working out its conceits.
Most science fiction movies are making a statement about our fears, our anxieties, whether they intend to or not. In the 1950s there were a lot of movies about monsters caused by radiation — people were scared of nuclear weapons. Now we have movies about the divisive, fragmenting, dehumanizing possibilities of high technology and digital media. We had the Truman Show, The Matrix, I,Robot, and now Surrogates. People love technology and they’re scared of it, at once. The internet helped us put Obama in office. It helps other people spread lies about him.
Suppose you were worried by something that was quite normal yet increasingly strange. You have an iPhone, you text, you tweet, you download movies, you go on facebook, you sell things on ebay, you read… h+ Magazine. But you do find yourself seeing people in person less often than before you did all this. You do wonder if your son or your little sister might be spending too much time online.
It bothers you — but you don’t talk about it much to people. You don’t want to seem like a dweeb or a luddite. So what do you do? You write a graphic novel about it. You like Philip K. Dick, so you borrow from him and from certain cyberpunk science fiction writers who shall remain nameless, and you have a fairly strong central idea to drive your metaphor, and it works pretty well. It gets picked up, turned into a movie, close enough to your graphic novel that you can still recognize it. And now, when you project your anxiety into science fiction, you’re not a luddite or dweeb, you’re a cool science fiction writer. You’re part of the techno-metaphor genre, and you can worry about this stuff right out in front of the world and make money from it too. And so we have Surrogates.
Despite cliché characters and dialogue like, “What is this, good cop/bad cop?!” — despite all, I enjoyed the film. Surrogates has a satisfying ending and it’s just plain fun to watch.
When I left the theater, I found myself looking at people’s faces more closely than normal. Staring into those bland, pretty surrogate faces made living faces in the real world shine out.