Sunday, 11 October 2009

Jack Ferguson reviews "Surrogates"

‘Surrogates,’ is a thriller about a world in which no one leaves the house any more because we all have robot versions of ourselves that can be controlled remotely, allowing people to experience the world without risk to their selves, and also to project whatever image of themselves they like.

The main plot of the film features two versions of Bruce Willis’ FBI Agent Tom Greer-firstly his unpleasantly photoshopped, waxy surrogate, with a comedy blonde toupee. But when the machine is damaged he is forced to come out into the real world in his real, bald, bearded, fragile and aged self. He does this to investigate the first murder that has occurred in years, using a weapon that is somehow able to kill a surrogate and the remote operator.

If the main plot sounds a bit silly, that’s because it was. The main charm of the film, in a way not unlike ‘Children of Men,’ (but not done nearly as well), is the background details the makers have created. The film opens with the staple of many a sci fi movie-the fake news reports that explain the background that sets up the world of the story. The one in Surrogates is particularly well done, with many of the fake pundits featured very reminiscent of a certain brand of nerd-hypester, insisting on TV the world shaking significance of the latest technological breakthrough. And throughout the film, little details, such as the advert that says, “Give every child the perfect childhood: Surrogates for children,” help to build up the atmosphere to make a creepy allegory about the alienation of early 21st century techno capitalism and the technological changes it has bought to social interaction via creations like Second Life or Facebook.

However, despite the fact that many details help to build a believable world, there’s a lot about it the social and political background of the film that’s unsatisfyingly resolved. A minority, but mass, movement around the world opposes the use of surrogates, and has formed reservations where they can live fully human lives. These people are led by a dreadlocked Ving Rhames, who plays ‘The Prophet,’ who inexplicably has the same first name as the former name of the Democratic Republic of Congo-Zaire Powell. We get to see a bit of this movement and their autonomous spaces, which are ramshackle hippie communes, but with a lot more green space and real looking people than the fake urban robot world outside. At one point a horse and cart is clearly meant to channel the idea of the Amish for the viewer. However, they’re never really fully fleshed out as a group, and remain a bit of a caricature.

But less well done than this is the throwaway mention at the start of “racism and sexism rapidly disappearing.” Why this should happen is never explained, and it is flat out contradicted in at least one scene, when we see two men using their surrogates to beat up a fellow robot woman, apparently simply for pleasure. But more than this, the implied point throughout the film, in a clear metaphor for the internet (with its flame wars and invented personalities for users), people use surrogates to live out their fantasies. Everyone can project whatever image of themselves they want, and more often than not, especially for women, this a sexualised stereotype of the human ideal. In another scene we see a bald, white, geeky scientist whose avatar is a much taller, well built black man. What does it say about this man that his fantasy version of himself, presumably in contrast to his nerdy self, is an athletic black man?

This raises a serious point about the makers’ impression of the changes being wrought in our society by the internet and new technology. One of the greatest economic drivers of the growth of the internet is the vast increase in pornography it has brought about. As a consequence our society is increasingly influenced by the ridiculous sexuality and extreme racism portrayed in porn. In many ways the internet (and its metaphorical version in the film, surrogacy) hasn’t eliminated sexism and racism-in fact it’s heightened it and made it worse.

As well as this, the issue of class and economic inequality is never really dealt with. I know I shouldn’t really expect that of a mainstream Hollywood film, but it did leave me wondering-can poor people afford surrogates? And in a world of such advanced robotics, why is there still the need for many people to even have jobs?

However, when parodying our world and how we interact with each other online, the details of the film are very successful. The world of surrogates is clearly false, but no one can conceive of life without them. This is personified in the character of Bruce Willis’ wife, who is angered when he starts refusing to use one, and is using hers as a means of disconnection from the painful, human reality of their past and current relationship. In contrast to the plastic, cosmetic surgery version of perfection of the surrogates, all the human operators we see are old and fragile, and bear all the hallmarks of our world’s obsessive computer user, with bad skin and damaged eyes.

Many of the action sequences feel a bit tacked on to appeal to people who just want thought free excitement, but despite this a scene were we get to see the US military in operation, with faceless robots descending on a desert enemy who we never really see (are they human or surrogate?) there is a nice touch: the soldiers themselves are sitting in a glorified gaming room. In an amusing comment on how the proliferation of war games to a generation that has fought in Iraq, we see how the conduct of war now really is like a game-when killed you reset to a specified point and go back to correct your mistake.

There’s a lot about ‘Surrogates,’ that’s very of our time. Recently there was a media controversy after a leading artificial intelligence researcher claimed we’re 10 years away from artificial people that can be bought for sex appearing on the open market. And as more and more people, via laptops and iphones, mediate every part of their daily experience through computer technology, are we really that far away from the world of the film? And of course, more than this, there’s the obvious parallel with alienation through consumerism, with people only able to experience the world and feel fully human by using and owning inanimate things.

However, where the film falls down is it wants to be two things at once-intelligent meditation on the theme of consumerism and techno alienation, as well as Bruce Willis futuristic cop action thriller. In trying to do both it doesn’t really succeed in either, but there are enough elements of a cleverer film in there to at least hold your interest.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The point which it makes about people amusing a fake personality/identity, whether in real life or the internet, and generally wanting to be something or somebody they are not, which goes to the extend of perversion and illusion, like the fat guy in the beginning of the film, who operated a pretty girl that made out with the son who got killed. We don't really who we are dealing with and can't trust anybody anymore. Or you wind up making out with a fat guy.. sort a speak. I think this is also something worth mentioning.

And I believe the notion that people will get more in touch with themselves, each other and their essentials roots as human beings, ones we get rid of all these gadgets which form a border between us as a people. The movie ended before we really got to see the alternative, but I think it was something which was so evident in everybody´s mind and really spoke for itself, that they didn't even bother to illustrate this, accept for the hug between Willis and his wife.

Well that's all I wanted to add actually.