I was going to revive the cagematch series with Surrogates (Jonathan Mostow: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) but then I made a mistake on the bus yesterday and read Howard Hampton’s essay “Metal-liad” and am now thoroughly embarrassed to have even tried the genre. In that essay Hampton reads 1991 music as Nirvana’s Nevermind against Guns N Roses’ Use Your Illusion I & II. It is a cagematch par excellence and I would recomment everyone check it out. Nick Hornby has nothing on this guy. Neither do I. Instead I offer a review of Surrogates.
The summary portion of the review is best handled by Jenna Busch over at JoBlo.com:
Fourteen years from now, the technology that allows people to move inanimate prosthetics with their minds has advanced by leaps and bounds. In this brave new world, people sit in “stim chairs” for most of the day, while living through an idealized, robotic version of themselves. The son of the man who created this fantastically creepy technology and his one night stand (a fat guy in a girl-bot) has been zapped to death by a mysterious man. And the users themselves have had their brains liquefied in their chairs. FBI agents Greer (Bruce Willis) and Peters (Radha Mitchell) are sent to investigate, uncovering a plot that threatens the very idea of surrogacy.
This movie is not good. I think it has potential but the way they executed it was not enjoyable. A few problems with the backstory. First, everyone in the world has a surrogate. Everyone? Even the poor? Capitalism changes and allows universal access? This is just glossed over, posited as if true, AND it is not even necessary to the story. Why not just say a lot of people have them a la television or computers? Because then the movie would become too polemical. Although I suspect that would have raised the production standards and its hidden jeramiad would have needed tightening up. Not even a resource crunch based on all the added energy needed to power the near doubling of the world’s overpopulation?
The second issue is that all crime disappears. Supposedly crime is a personal afront and since people are now sheltered away there is no point to breaking the law. Anyone who thinks that is plausible was probably confused at “StoopidNoodle”. And if there is no/little crime why then is there even an FBI for Greer to work at?
Third, each major city has a section called a reservation where Luddites have retreated to escape technology. Again I have to wonder what other monumental change occurred, because surely our government would need more than a surrogate development to allow this to happen. Sci Fi is nice when they posit one difference and then see how the world would be different, a type of counterfactual. This backstory, however, is replete with unfounded changes based upon the movie’s fiat. Needless to say, the initial backstory montage had my hackles up.
Spoiler, well sort of, the trailer shows all the surrogates deactivating and collapsing so it’s not much of a spoiler (and there are scenes in the movie where an operative disconnects from the surrogate and the surrogate remains standing, but in the the movie’s resolution all of them fall down): Greer unplugs them so people are forced to act as ‘humans’ again. That’s a silly ending. The technology is obviously deemed desireable. Today’s world is so competitive with electronics that undesired technology is quickly discarded. All Greer does is momentarily suspend the tech. He also probably kills people as some people are dependent on the tech for sustenance and, most all, people have grown physically dependent upon the surrogates. Good job.
Greer was faced with a choice and he instead chose ‘humane’ one. Instead of dropping all the operator/surrogate links he could have allowed a virus to kill all surrogates and operators; his other choice was to stop any change and allow the status quo to continue. I contend that either of the other options would have been preferable. I have already laid out how disconnecting them was already a violent act, abruptly denying people something they are used to and have every reason to believe will continue to be available.
The other option of killing the operators would have also been more humane. It all comes down to the anxiety informing the movie. Some see the movie as anti-technological. But there is no reason to think the criticism is about ALL technology. Rather it is about technologies of representation. The movie is informed by a crisis of authenticity. There are a couple of things in the movie pointing to this read: 1. the initiating event is a double murder, and one of the murdered is not an attractive young woman but instead an old guy (a la the chat room predator fear) 2. Greer at one points says, “I don’t even know who you are!” But it is said as though it makes a difference. 3. The constant romantic tensions between Greer and his wife is about her continued use of a surrogate and whether or not “they” are still married. There are many other moments where this reading is clear. So, the movie is about authenticity, which is supposedly why Greer makes the choice he does.
Won’t everyone be sad to realize that being face to face with someone does not restore authenticity? Authenticity is not about identity, which is the conflation made in the film. This movie is a perfect demonstration of Badiou’s criticism of authenticity:
Any attempt to achieve the real as identified authenticity, to bypass the inevitably tendential mediation of representation… will result in infinite violence… Since any such attempt ‘a formal criterion is lacking to distinguish the real from semblance,’ there is no way for militants to confirm authenticity of commitment – neither that of colleagues and leaders nor their own. All that can ensue is constant suspicion and purge. Stalin’s regime is emblematic. (Jenkins 2008)
Greer has not saved anyone from violence. He has merely delayed it and cast their lives in the interim into an uncomfortable and potentially horrifying place. The technology still exists and can be rebuilt, so there will always be doubt about whom a person is. The more humane – humane as “more than human”, a humanity-surpassing move (H+) – move might have been to wipe it all clean and let the anti-Surrogates rebuild.
Hampton, Howard. (1992) in Howard Hampton, ed. (2007). Born in flames (75-80). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Jenkins, Joseph. (2008, April). Symposium law and event: Violence in Badiou’s recent work. Cardozo Law Review, 29, online.