Surrogates Revisited
Missing Pandora?

I get the strangest sensation when watching a film featuring James Cromwell. On the one hand, ever since I first saw him the hysterical spoof Murder by Death, he has reminded me of Cruella De Vil’s tall henchman in the orginal 101 Dalmatians.  On the other hand, he now also consistently makes me think of James Cameron.  And in Surrogates, the combination actually works, oddly enough.

In 1982, Ridley Scott brought realistic androids to the big screen in Blade Runner.  The notion of human immersion in an alternate reality via electronic stimulation was first explored convincingly in 1983’s Brainstorm—in which memories were captured and capable of being played back.  In 1999, The Matrix proposed an alternate vision in which the immersion was substitutionary and computer-generated, the human drones meanwhile harvested as Duracells.  In 2008’s WALL-E, the vision was more tied to contemporary human experience: humans as glorified and stupefied couch potatoes who experience everything via screens and gadgets.

Bruce Willis as Greer in SurrogatesSurrogates, amazingly, really doesn’t feel like a rip-off of any of these in positing a near-future in which real people stay in the comfort (and safety) of their own homes while sending out android/drone “surrogates” to experience (a “more perfect”) life for them.  Bruce Willis plays an FBI agent investigating the first known human murder-via-surrogate.  As Jeff Walls noted here at PtP in his review of the theatrical release of the film, it “presents a rather frightening vision of a possible future and raises some interesting questions.” 

Unlike Jeff, though, I did not find the story “unfortunately” packaged “in a rather conventional and run-of-the-mill sci-fi thriller.”  In fact, given recent reports of post-Avatar depression—and Cromwell’s evocation of Cameron himself, both physically, and in his role as a high-tech baron whose revolutionary designs transform society—I found the film absolutely gripping.

Consider what Cameron has publicly said about Avatar:

The film espouses this love/hate relationship with technology. … Obviously we use technology to tell this story that’s a celebration of nature, which is an irony in itself. It’s not that technology is bad, it’s not that technological civilization is bad, it’s just that we need to be in control of the technical process. We’re not going to be able to just rip our clothes off and run back into the wilderness—first of all, there’s not a whole lot of it left, secondly, that’s not going to work for eight billion people.

It’s not a stretch to imagine Cameron himself as the techo-geek who finally achieves what Cromwell’s Canter does in Surrogates.  If we get depressed because we can’t stay in Pandora, why not develop the technology to make that very thing possible?  If reality can’t be made to work for eight billion people, why not deliver the ultimate opiate to the masses?

Surrogates, of course, is the cautionary-tale response to those questions.  Part of society rebels against the artificiality of it all, setting up autonomous surrogate-free zones.  Sure, they’re surrounded by rubble—but as Willis’ Greer finds out once he leaves his surrogate body behind, there’s a lot of simple Eden to be found if we but consign our avatars to their proper places.

If we win Oscars, have perfect skin and hair, can’t possibly die even if our limbs get ripped off, prefer 3-D digital worlds to our own—and yet have not found real, superhuman love… well, what a bunch of noise. 

Fortunately, Canter’s edict—“To kill the addiction, you’ve got to kill the addict”—simply isn’t true.

Even though Surrogates glosses over a whole lot of its deconstructionist implications—did Greer happen to think about what might happen with jetliners raining from the sky, for instance?—I’m very grateful for its depiction of artificiality out of control.  What a nice little antidote to Avatar mania.

But how sad that the DVD release offers absolutely nothing in the way of illuminating bonus features!

Surrogates is rated PG-13 “intense sequences of violence, disturbing images, language, sexuality and a drug-related scene.”  Director Jonathan Mostow does a fine job of avoiding the most salacious possibilities of life-by-surrogate.  What a pleasant alternative to most contemporary science fiction!

Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional DVD of Surrogates.