It is rare to come across a piece of cinema that actually engages with the internet as a cultural phenomenon. When the net first crept into our lives, films such as Irwin Winkler’s The Net (1995) saw it as a disturbing and demonic presence that seemed poised to erode our freedoms and generally smash our civilisation like Alaric the Visigoth. Even those rare films that tried to accept the internet as fact of our day-to-day lives struggled to achieve anything close to technological verisimilitude. Who remembers the real-time email exchanges in Robert Zemeckis’ Contact (1997)? Or the computer viruses with expensive-looking graphics in Iain Softley’s otherwise charming Hackers (1995)? When Hollywood finally bit the bullet and represented the net in positive terms, it was mainly due to similarities between aspects of online communication and older, more established technologies. This trend is particularly obvious in the work of Nora Ephron whose You’ve Got Mail (1998) remade the great Ernst Lubitsch’s story of anonymous letter-writing The Shop Around The Corner (1940), while her most recent film Julie & Julia (2009) links together the story of Julia Childs writing her first cookbook with a 21st Century woman blogging about cookery. Jonathan Mostow’s Surrogates in no way signals the end of Hollywood’s deep ambivalence about the internet, but it does at least know enough about the net for some of its criticisms to hit home.
Ostensibly a bog-standard conspiracy thriller with a couple of mildly entertaining chase sequences, Surrogates really impresses at the level of its central conceit. As we are told in a rather unimpressively constructed opening montage, the world of Surrogates is one in which 98% of humanity has retreated into tele-operated synthetic bodies through which they experience the world while sitting at home in their pyjamas. The bodies (known as “surrogates” or “surries”) transmit all forms of sensory input back to their owners but fail-safes mean that the owners are protected from extremes of pain as well as illness and accidental death. In addition to providing protection from the harsher aspects of reality, surrogates allow their owners to choose the form they project to the outside world. Suddenly, ugliness is banished and all forms of prejudice disappear beneath the knowledge that people are not necessarily who they appear to be. Mostow shows us some of the broader social changes that appeared in the wake of this great retreat from the world.
Early in the film, we are shown a night-club. In addition to weirdly angular dances that sweep across the dance-floor like flocks of birds changing direction, Surrogates’s night clubs are also heaving flesh pots reminiscent mostly of the pre-AIDS fetish clubs that feature in William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980). With no disease, no risk and no need to go to the bother of actually going anywhere physically, humanity’s sexual morays have become those of the internet chat room : People are flirting and getting off with each other but ultimately it is not real as everyone is back home wanking in their bedrooms.
Later, we are shown a military installation. In the world of Surrogates, the US is still fighting imperial wars in the Middle East but now they are fought by adolescents, operating their bodies by remote control as though taking part in some vast LAN party. Of course, this is nothing new. Barry Levinson’s Toys (1992) predicted a similar future in which toy manufacturers made weapons and the weapons were operated by children all too willing to rack up points and win the game. What is different in Surrogates is the suggestion that the other side are also using surrogates to fight their battles. Clearly, the urge to kill one’s enemies is just as strong as the desire for sex in the world of the film, but both urges are satisfied by tele-presence. As Kathryn Bigelow suggested with The Hurt Locker (2009), war is an addiction, and Surrogates has its own form of methadone.
However, instead of just being a safer way to engage in risky activities, surrogacy is also a place to hide.
Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) is an FBI agent who lost a child in a car accident. He lives with his wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike) but has not seen her for years. Maggie, terribly scarred in the accident, never leaves her bedroom and never allows anyone else to see her. For Tom, this is torture. He loves his wife and wishes to be with her but he cannot get over the fact that the pert and immaculate Maggie he sees every day is not his wife. When challenged, Maggie insists that she is her surrogate but the truth is that this is only the face that she shows the outside world. The real Maggie is psychologically frail and on about 16 different kinds of medication. By identifying with her surrogate, she is hoping to leave her old self behind.
The similarities with the internet are striking. For years now, cultural theorists have praised places like Second Life for allowing people to experiment with different identities. In Second Life you can be of any sex, any gender, any race and of any appearance that you wish. You can inhabit that role with only minimal risk to your real life identity and reputation. However, while Second Life and other avatar-dependent venues such World of Warcraft and City of Heroes might be obvious analogies for Surrogates’ synthetic bodies, the same principle of social engagement with minimal personal investment holds true for most online practices. If you wanted to, you could leave an anonymous comment on this very blog post. You could set up a livejournal account under a pseudonym. You could set up a fake Facebook account and a network of accounts on different sites and be as real, in online terms, as a person who was putting their own name and reputation behind their online activities. You could say and do anything you wanted about anyone you wished and, short of legal intervention, your real life would never be harmed by any of these activities. You would be insulated and protected. All the social interaction, none of the personal risk.
In addition to encouraging people to behave in ways that would be considered intemperate or risky if undertaken in the real world, the internet can also breed a form of generalised risk aversion and provide people with the means to escape from rather than augment the real world.
We can see it in much of the parlance of social media with its elevation of online acquaintances to friends. To create a Facebook account is not only to connect with your real friends but also to promote people we know of or might once have been friends with in the distant past. We have people who comment frequently on our blogs but whose names we do not know. We regularly read the writing of people whose real personalities we are entirely ignorant of. The internet makes it easier to connect with people because it removes the barriers that come with emotional investment. But, what if that process of risk-taking and emotional investment is part of what it means to connect with another human being? What if real human emotions are necessarily double-sided? By protecting ourselves against being hurt, are we not also protecting ourselves from what is best in the world? From real friendship, real love, real connection?
Surrogates is a film with many questions. Frequently inelegantly asked questions. But it has few answers. It suggests that there is something deeply inauthentic about experiencing life through a surrogate but it paints the refuseniks of its world as a collection of quasi-religious survivalists. It also fails to fashion a narrative around Greer’s belief that people should step away from their surrogates. It is only by using a technological McGuffin that Greer is able to finally see his wife in the flesh and there is no guarantee that people will not return to their surrogates once the system is back online. Here we see the ambivalence of Hollywood in all of its glory : The film has deep misgivings about the internet, but it simply cannot think of a compelling reason for stepping away from it. By failing to make the case for a surrogate-free world, Mostow has only presented us with half of the equation.