Saturday, October 17, 2009

Surrogates: Philip K Dick Light

ANYONE WHO HAS READ PHILIP K. DICK can feel his influence in a lot of the better science fiction out there. His grappling with social power, identity, resistance, oppression, commodification make him one of the more visionary writers in a visionary genre. Surrogates is an example of a film that very clearly owes a lot to the creative mentorship of Dick's work.
It is a murder mystery and conspiracy thriller set in the relatively near future where robotics has advanced to the point that lifelike robots can live our lives, controlled remotely by us as we lay in a home-based hook-up. Bruce Willis, as police detective named Tom Greer, does a solid job portraying a man caught between the ambivalence of desiring the promise of safety provided by using a surrogate and the desire to actually live his own life. The family-centred backstory to the conflict in his personal life is a pretty typical cliché but it does a serviceable job making the point.
There's also a good supply of action to the film - including a fun chase scene by Greer's surrogate of the suspect in a territory controlled by anti-surrogate rebels who refuse to live their lives in any way other than in their own skins.
The problem is that it hasn't lived up to its mentor. It lacks the depth and texture of a Dick novel or film. We get the sense that living life through the experiences of our surrogate is a bad thing somehow. But to be honest, it's not clear why that's so: you can be beautiful. It's eliminated racism and sexism because you never know who somebody really is. You're safe and don't have to fear either crime or accidents. You're stronger and faster. And you experience all of the sensations of the surrogate as though it is your body. So, what's the big deal? And why does Bruce have to go an ruin it for the rest of us?
I realized afterwards that the world is just not dark enough. Dick had an uncanny ability to take the nastiness of our world and use technology and speculation as a means to highlight that nastiness, to shift our perspective so that which we normally take for granted can be seen for what it is. He taught fish to see water - if you catch my drift.
This film doesn't do that. It lacks edge. Even the rebel, played by Ving Rhames, feels neither inspiring nor threatening. The same with the authorities. The debate between them is banal - stop using surrogates, defend the right to use surrogates. Ho hum. 
And we have a hero who wants to change the world in order to fix the relationship with his wife. I'm all for counseling and everything but it's not exactly epic stuff and not a very good motivation to be a bummer on everybody else's good time. Basically, the filmmakers have low-balled all the motivations and elements, presumably to keep the movie mainstream. There isn't sufficient advantage taken of surrogacy's twisted potential. People could live as animal robots. You could be married to a black man who is actually a white woman or vice versa. How would we know if the president is really the president? But we never get more than hints of the complications of this world. It's a shame that the opportunity was wasted. Still, it was a fun ride and a decent twist to make us say "aaah" in the end. But it doesn't really require the big screen to enjoy. Save yourself some money and rent it.
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