Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Surrogates: Substituting B-Movie Plots for Story Telling

There seems to be a rash of movies lately about the oh-so-1990’s subject of virtual reality, or what this latest sci-fi film starring Bruce Willis as a future cop on the trail of a virtual reality killer, calls “Surrogates.” You know: plug into a substitute idealized android body that you control remotely with some fancy looking VR goggles and easy chair. The much awaited James Cameron sci-fi thriller, Avatar, also uses this same plot device, as does the recent Gamer (only in the case of Gamer, the androids were real, living convicts). The same idea is as old as the original "Star Trek" (the Harry Mudd episode with the Androids) and was given real attention in TV shows like "Wild Palms" and movies like Johnny Mnemonic and Virtuosity in the mid Nineties.

I’m not quite sure why this old sci-fi trope is suddenly so popular again. As it’s done in Surrogates, it definitely has a William Gibson, 1990’s feel – especially as this film delves into our pension for electronic communication and fascination with artificial reality. Like most of these films, the moral is simple: we're now so plugged in to the “net” that we've lost our ability to enjoy real life. But this time, the VR “chairs” and “goggles” used in this film seem hardly at all re-imagined from their 1990’s counterparts, and the story does little to update a theme that’s been well exploited ever since Jean Baudrillard wrote his treatises on hyperreality and movies like The Matrix turned the net into a well dramatized metaphor for modern electronic isolation.

In Surrogates, we have a kind of cross between I Robot and The Matrix – a vast volunteer matrix of metallic, human-looking artificial life forms that people can control remotely from the lazy comfort of their living rooms as they send younger, handsomer robotic look-alikes to work, play, and generally participate daily life for them. The robots are manufactured by, of course, an all-powerful corporation with vested interests and internal dissention. Life is seemingly sweet in this safe, accident-free virtual world until someone discovers a weapon able to short out a robot with enough power that it can kill its remote operator in his chair (it does so by “melting his brain,” just to make sure you get the point).

Enter Bruce Willis as Tom Greer, the cop with personal issues who’s assigned to track down the mystery of the killer. Now Surrogates borrows from its third major source – Majority Report – as the cop with a dead son gets lured into uncovering the conspiracy behind the killings, while simultaneously having to stop a deadly threat to the billions of surrogate users around the world.

While the set up to the concept is nicely done – there’s a kind of Paul Verhoeven style to the direction that tweaks our modern corporate sensibilities – the back stories about the dead son and the mysterious corporate founder fail to resonate as well as the movies they’re borrowed from. (James Cromwell even stars as the corporate font head, as he did in I Robot.) We get a kind of promising political allegory in the form of a revolutionary named The Prophet, who wants everyone to go back to the “unplugged” pre-surrogate lifestyle – a charismatic rabble-rouser whose moral righteousness in this film is the flip side of the villainous Flesh Fair organizers in Speilberg’s AI. But this interesting wrinkle in the plot is conveniently smoothed over in an effort to get to the movie’s more conventional pat ending. In effect, they seem to have substituted real writers with Hollywood surrogates who merely borrowed plot devices to fill in the steps in their fantasy.

It’s a shame, because a movie with a promising concept ends up delivering less than a TV show with a similar concept ("Caprica", based on "Battlestar Gallactica"), but more atmospheric character and backstory development. Really, the makers of Surrogates could have done better by committing more to one of to extremes – either a bigger budget, with better chase scenes, special effects, and explosions, or keep it to the B-movie budget they seem to have had, but develop more nuanced characters, and explore with a bit more care the themes of disconnection and loss. Instead, we get a movie about a people who live but a shadow of their lives, which is itself but a shadow of a movie.

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