Surrogates (2009)


What if you could have a superior robot body? But then, what if Bruce Willis were allowed to pull the plug on you because he didn’t think robot bodies are cool? And what if, once he did that to you, you were supposed to thank him for it?

That’s the premise of this near-future thriller. As a self-contained story, it really doesn’t make much sense. But see, it’s also a Message Film. There’s a Moral to the Story. It’s a Metaphor for Society.

The key factor is that they don’t actually move your mind into a robot body, they just let you operate the robot body remotely while your real body sprawls in a high tech couch. And in spite of that, the robot body experience is supposed to be so awesome that 97 percent of the population uses such a robot, a “surrie”, for their day to day living.

And the metaphorical meaning, of course, is that we’re all sitting in front of various LCD monitors, interacting with the wider world through electronic mediation. Fuckin' couch potatoes! Boo us.

In this movie, Bruce Willis is a cop, whose surrogate looks like a young Bruce Willis with blond hair. He’s unusual in that his surrogate is halfway recognizable as the same person as the real him — most folks upgrade their looks more dramatically. His surrie, being a police model, can do awesome stuff like jump thirty feet. Unfortunately, someone is running around out there with some kind of high voltage weapon that not only knocks surrogates down, but inexplicably also destroys the brain of the human who’s operating it. Bruce and his partner have to track the guy down, particularly after he assassinates a rich kid. And who’s backing the killer? There are schemes and twists to be uncovered...

There’s nothing wrong with this as an action movie. Bruce Willis really is capable of actual acting when he feels like it, and there are some good set pieces and effects. The plotting is sufficient, in a by-the-numbers sort of way, and the cast is decent. And they create a quite creepy “too perfect” look for the surrogates — many of them look halfway between supermodels and inanimate mannequins.

As a science fiction film, though, its premise just doesn’t wash. The world situation that they’ve set up for the story is nowhere near believable. And as a message film... oy.

A good moral metaphor has to not just tell you something that makes sense as a message (like going outdoors for a change = good), it also has to make solid sense on the literal surface level of the story. Done right, when something is clear and feels right in the story on its own terms, then that allows it to bring clarity on the metaphorical level to some message that is not otherwise obvious and self-evident. This movie has it backwards: it tries to use the rather obvious and self-evident validity of the metaphorical message as a prop to get us to accept the surface story.

When the surrogacy system goes down and everybody has to come out in the sunlight and accept their natural selves again, we’re supposed to feel that this is a good thing, because we recognize the metaphorical relationship to our couch-potatodom. But does that make sense as a positive thing in itself, without the metaphor? No, it does not. It doesn’t even make that much sense with our current potatoid lives... would you accept the sudden absence of the web, for instance, as a good thing? What our hero does here is inflict a huge setback on human society.

If you look at what the real Message of this message movie is, it’s that primitive is good and progress is bad. That argument has been made about a lot of things over the years, from pesticides and airplanes to steam power and ironwork to agriculture itself. Though there are certainly items of progress that have been used thoughtlessly or abusively or unsustainably, I’m certainly not buying the kind of luddism that thinks of our violent and short-lived primitive past as some kind of natural paradise.

To our descendants, if we don’t blow it, we will be the violent and short-lived primitive past. That is a good thing. Speed the day, says I. And part of that future is going to be the process of replacing or enhancing the natural body, by parts or in whole, through technology. This movie wants to hold such progress back. My reply to that: fuck you with a robot dick.

For me, as a Message Movie, this actually undermines itself. Because the flaws in the surface story do carry back to the metaphor. I am now less inclined than I was before to uncritically accept the notion that electronically mediated life is a poor thing.