A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 36 – Surrogates

Surrogates – April 5, 2010

This is a new one for me and Andy. We like new ones on Mondays because we both get out of work early and still have the attention spans for something we’ve never seen before. The concept is an interesting one: The technology for robotic bodies has advanced enough to create well-nigh-realistic avatars with not just equal functionality to a human body, but advanced abilities like night vision and enhanced strength and speed as well as durability. People can operate these bodies remotely, using them to live their day-to-day lives from work to vacation to the minutia of grocery shopping or driving. After all, why not? Your robot body is hard to damage and it looks just like you want to look! But there’s a movement (of course) alleging that these “surrogates” are abominations and that humans should be living their own lives first-hand, not at a remove.

Now, this isn’t a new concept. I’ve seen it in a bunch of places. And there are some serious implications that I don’t think I’m quite well-versed enough to talk about, but just off the top of my head there’s the reason given by the surrogates’ creator in the movie. He created the technology to “empower the powerless” which, given that the character in question is in a wheelchair, has a rather obvious meaning of giving people with disabilities bodies without said disabilities. Someone with more background in disability advocacy could probably tackle that better than I can but I will say that I find the idea within the movie to be a good hook. The man who invented the tech did so with specific intentions. Intentions he felt were honorable and well-meaning and destined to change people’s lives for the better. And instead the tech turned into a way for people to avoid everything around them. That part’s sort of hammered into your skull every time they bring up the fact that the main character’s son is dead. Oddly enough, the first place that comes to mind when thinking of this whole remote-operated-body thing is an Anne McCaffrey book. One of the brain ship books. And even there, the ramifications of said bodies was mentioned. I wish I knew enough to talk about the real world implications, but I don’t, so I’ll stick to the movie.

Onto the plot. It’s a science fiction mystery. I really do like a good science fiction mystery that uses the technology that makes it science fiction to make the mystery a good one. I don’t just want a murder mystery set in the future. I want to have to rely on the future tech and future rules in order to solve the mystery. I want the murder or whatever’s going on to be dependent on being set in the future. I want to have to use the internal rules and logic of the world I’ve just learned about in order to figure out what’s going on. And in Surrogates, I did. Because it’s not just a murder mystery. It’s corporate intrigue and quasi-terrorism, but introduced through the mysterious death of a college student, apparently killed when his surrogate was destroyed. Which defeats the point of surrogates, and is therefore pretty terrifying to the people in the movie. A weapon capable of killing a human being by destroying the surrogate body they’re using has hideous implications for a world where almost everyone uses a surrogate all day every day. And so the main character, Greer (played by Bruce Willis, who, for the beginning of the movie is playing Greer’s surrogate with a full head of hair), has to track down the weapon and figure out who made it, who’s using it, and who’s behind it all. This takes him through the military, the company that develops most surrogate technology, and a “Dread” reservation, where people who refuse to use or deal with surrogates (led by a man calling himself The Prophet) have created a community where surrogates and “modern” technology are banned. By the time I got to the end I’d pretty much figured out a lot of what was going on, but not all of it.

The early reveals of the people running the creepily-perfect embodiments of the uncanny valley show that they could be similar or wildly disparate. And that serves to make me curious to see what everyone’s like back at home, in their bedrooms and living rooms and dorm rooms. I’d sort of hoped for more interesting reveals than people just being older and frailer than their virtual bodies. There is ONE good reveal, which I’d sort of seen half of, but not the other half of. But that one reveal ends up being the key to the mystery. Follow it closely enough and you can figure it out. And that’s really what I like about the movie, and about good science fiction mysteries (like Larry Niven’s Flatlander stories). Once you have all the info about the tech and the world, you can start to piece it together. But then too, the tech in this world makes for good mystery fodder. If anyone can be anyone else, then figuring out who’s pulling whose strings (both figuratively and literally – the surrogates are referred to as puppets a few times in the movie) can be incredibly difficult.

The action scenes left me feeling a little meh, but I find it hard to hold that against the movie, since a lot of the point of the surrogates and the malaise Greer seems to be feeling, as well as that of the arguments of the people on the reservations, is that there is no thrill to life if it’s not you living it. If you’re living at a remove, then nothing really affects you. In the middle of a helicopter crash, Greer opens his surrogate’s eyes and calmly looks around as the helicopter spins wildly through the air. He feels no real concern about what’s taking place, and therefore neither do we. I can’t decide if that’s intentional. If it is, nice move on the director’s part. If it’s not, it should have been. There’s some great creepy Terminator-esque scenes, with Greer’s surrogate body chasing a human, and that, I think, was an intentional display of just how different the surrogates are from humans, and just how dangerous they could become.

I won’t say it’s a brilliant movie, but I will say it deals with a not-so-fresh concept in a good way. The story is engaging, though the subplot between Greer and his wife didn’t do much more for me than bolster the whole malaise thing. But I forgive the romantic plot. It served its purpose and it didn’t take away from the larger story. To be honest, I’d be curious to know more about the world the movie’s set in, both before and after the movie itself. It’s well-built enough to make me want to know what happens next, and the meat behind the stories given in the opening credits background history montage.

April 5, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Surrogates

April 5, 2010

Surrogates

Here’s a reason that I’m going to miss working at Blockbuster. There are going to be all these movies out there that I’m not going to be exposed to. I bought Surrogates a while back on a whim because I was intrigued by the previews. The movie itself was in the theaters for about five minutes last year, buried in a pile of more successful summer blockbuster films. Had I not seen the preview about twenty times a day for two or three weeks I would have never given the movie a chance because I had a vague notion that it was some kind of action schlock. But I DID see the preview over and over and OVER again, and eventually I figured I’d use my employee discount and grab the movie – just so I’d have it on hand in case the mood took me to watch it. It’s something I do, and it’s part of why we have so many movies left to watch in this project.

I’m really glad I picked it up.

Surrogates is a cool speculative sci-fi mystery involving conspiracies and nifty non-existent technology. Kind of like Strange Days. The tech involved here is the development of human robot bodies that can be remotely operated by people. You get a big download of newscast information in the opening credits that explains how this technology was developed for the military so that soldiers need not be sent into war zones, but it soon became available to civilians. By the time the action in the movie starts pretty much everybody in the world lives their entire life in a surrogate robot body, never leaving the control couch. (Except a lunatic fringe of separatists who insist on living life as humans.)

When a young college student is killed by a weapon that destroys his surrogate and fries his brain agent Greer of the FBI (Bruce Willis) has to unravel the mystery of where this weapon came from and why this boy was killed. It’s a fun mystery with a couple plot twists (one of which I TOTALLY called!) There’s some car chases and explosions and a little too much stunt wire work (because the surrogates have superior strength and reflexes, see.) But I mostly enjoyed the movie for it’s speculative sci-fi core. I love being given a premise like this and seeing where they go with it.

Now I will say, even in the short time I was watching the movie, my mind was racing ahead and poking holes in the movie’s main premise. I mean: sure there are different models of surrogate represented (like the land lady near the start of the movie who has a cheapo loaner and can’t work an apartment door key) but everybody looks human and is on the same basic scale. Why are there no tiny surrogates for electrical and plumbing work? Why no wheeled or winged surrogates? Why no furries? No giants? Pretty much the premise of this movie is that someone invented IRL Second Life – at least that’s how I saw it. Many of the inter-personal issues presented are familiar to anybody who knows about the kind of wank that comes out of Second Life or with the whole “widows of Warcraft” thing. So it seemed odd that some of the more crazy stuff you’d expect wasn’t in the movie. Maybe it was a budgetary thing, or maybe the film makers didn’t want to detract from the main story by getting too weird.

Also: why does everybody go on commuting to and from work? Wouldn’t you have a surrogate in some kind of play-house for off time and a drone surrogate at your place of employment? And: Why do all these police officers and FBI agents look at footage from surrogate memories on computer monitors rather than just re-living the memories directly?

So, yeah, if you think about it the movie doesn’t make much sense. But if you just take things at face value and accept the world of the movie as it is presented I think that it’s a fun ride.

Some other thoughts:

I love the way the film makers made the surrogates seem inhuman even though they were performed by human actors. Was this movie nominated for any make up awards? (It doesn’t look like it.) Well it should have been! The plastic and fake look of the surrogates was really well done. Even if it DID remind me of the creepy, creepy Duracell advertisements with the battery powered plastic people from a few years back. There were several times when I wasn’t sure if I was looking at mannequins or actors in make up – and in the context of this movie that’s a win.

Also – apparently this movie was filmed in and around Boston. It was fun seeing lots of Boston landmarks. (Mostly around Post Office Square and old City Hall, but also establishing shots around South Station.) Hooray for local tax breaks to film makers!

In summary: this is not a perfect film, and it has some plot holes, but it is a fun film, and I’m glad I gave it a chance. Where am I going to find lesser known films like this once my stint at Blockbuster is done?

April 5, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment