Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda
One thing that would be cool about the events of the movie Surrogates coming true is that I would have sent my surrogate to endure that too-long eighty-eight minutes instead of me. Meanwhile, I could have engaged in any number of meaningful activities, including but not limited to sock drawer reorganization and fingernail clipping. But, alas, here we are in 2009 with our paltry attempts at surrogates in Second Life and World of Warcraft…
And on that note, if you can manage to keep your brain tied up in the social message of Surrogates, you might be okay. It does, in fact, offer an intriguing take on computer avatars and how our identities are constructed online. In one of the first scenes, it is revealed that a hot chick surrogate is actually being operated by a fat man. Speaking as a long-time MMORPG fan, I can attest to the reality of this sort of gender-swapping. I really liked how the movie asked me to challenge my thinking about online worlds. When I’m interacting with a hot female night elf druid in WoW, intellectually I know that that the odds are 10:1 that she’s a man in real life. But how often do I interact with online women as though they are women and online men as though they are men? And what difference would it make anyway? Since WoW introduced their new voice technology for grouping, I’ve been surprised many times by the type of voice I hear once the group is formed, often a players’ voice has nothing in common with the virtual avatar, whether they are men playing female toons or adolescent boys playing football player-sized avatars. For surfacing these kinds of questions, I was initially captivated with the film. The movie challenges the audience with these sorts of questions: how does the prospect of perfection impact our identities? How are gender and sexuality construed online? To what extent is “living” online just escapism? Who are you when you can be anything?
Unfortunately, the movie does not take even one of these questions and pursue it. Instead, Surrogates quickly devolves into another in a long line of “science-as-monster” fiction, warning against scientific progress because it will only come at the expense of man’s essential “humanity.” Whatever, whatever. This movie is a missed opportunity in that it could have been a really interesting exploration of the anesthetization of human beings in an online world but instead decides to paint the world with unrealistic swatches of “good” and “evil.”
The result is that we get The Matrix Lite. It’s got the same sort of beautiful perfection versus people who haven’t shaved or applied make-up (though with fewer dowdy sweaters). It also suffers from the same hero complex, with the fate of the world resting on one person; think everything that was wrong with The Matrix’s sequels and you’ll kind of get the picture.
Before this review comes off sounding overly critical, there were a few moments that I really enjoyed. I liked the overweight system operator who refuses to use an Avatar. I connected for long moments at a time with Bruce Willis’s actual human being, forced out into the world when his avatar is destroyed. Willis is nothing if not good at playing the slightly-perplexed-but-good-hearted-everyman. And Ving Rhames was fabulous.
The two chase scenes were both well shot and effectively showed off the advantages of police avatars versus plain old human beings. But for me, the movie lost its focus during the first chase; with lingering shots on the fearful expression of the human being chased by Willis’s avatar, I felt my sympathy conflicted. I was hopeful that this was a conscious move on the part of the filmmakers who planned to complicate the story, but this hope did not pan out. Rather than complicating the moral message of the story, the filmmakers led us a wild goose chase of a plot, winding up where we all could have predicted we were going from the beginning but figured it would be too obvious.
I wanted to like Surrogates substantially more than I actually liked it in the end. Too many missed opportunities for my taste.