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FIY

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“Surrogates” (2009) – on neophobia and rooting for the bad guys

Surrogates is a 2009 movie featuring Bruce Willis, Rosamund Pike, Ving Rhames and James Cromwell, one of my favourite actors that specializes in truly evil, creepy bad guys in position of power. Surrogates is set in a slightly science fiction future where robot bodies are common. The robots are actually telerobots controlled by teleoperators from their homes.

 

Bruce Willis does not like the future, so he is going to mess it up for everybody.

 

So all these robot bodies, some very beautiful, some very utilitiarian and machine-like, roam the streets and do stuff, like working at a beauty saloon or fighting wars. And their operators meanwhile are in vaguely creepy, red-lit couches with scary devices on their eyes, managing the remote body. Some people work from home, others from giant offices.Our protagonist is a cop, a profession in which the use of a surrogate body is really a good idea. The protagonist being Bruce Willis, you can bet that his surrogate looks exactly like him plus a stupid blond wig.

The movie has a plot, in the way a sea cucumber has a nervous system. It is tiny and underdeveloped, but it is good enough to manage the sea cucumber’s affair in a pretty decent way. Nobody has ever complained, at any rate. I will not hypothetically spoil the tiny plot for you, although you will be able to deduce all of it about 10 minutes into the movie.

 

At the beginning of the movie we are told that surrogates have dropped the crime rate by 99% and that basically the world has turned into the land of milk and honey. You would say dude, this is great, we have a good economy, no crime, go surrogates go! But no, this would place you in the Bad Guys camp.

Bruce Willis has some sort of growing objection to the whole surrogate idea. It has mostly to do with him feeling estranged from his wife, and she refusing to let him see her "real" body, because she thinks that with time she has become hideous. And you know what? She is quite right. Her surrogate looks like Rosamund Pike in full battle paint. In the first scene where the real woman is visible, she looks like she has been sleeping wrapped in her own hair under a sofa for ten years. If I were in that state, I would not want to meet mr. mature male hotness Bruce Willis.

 

this is what Madame Willis looks like, every day, all day. Would you have any complaints with it? I mean, seriously. And her friends are all good looking too. 

 

Bruce Willis (ignore his character’s name in the movie: you will think of him all the time as Bruce Willis anyway) does what he does in every movie, that is he gets hurt in the face, bleeds, sweats and gets smeared with one thousand different kinds of dirt, most of them greasy and black. His surrogate gets destroyed by hairy, Mad Max like people who reject surrogates because they have no souls and are an abomination unto God. The Mad Maxers live in scary reservations made mostly of ripped-up containers and run their parallel economy, based on holding demonstrations and trading tomatoes among themselves. Their personal igene also leaves something to be desired, as does their fashion sense.

I was not able to find anywere in the Bible any prohibition about teleoperated robots, or any claim that teleloperated robots are supposed to have souls.

At any rate, Bruce has a sort of a very subtle conflict there (this movie is all about extreme subtlety, shades of motion, delicately calibrated grays and Bruce Willis blowing shit up with cool gadgets) because as a cop and a surrogate user he is supposed to be against the hairy and scary Mad Max people, but as a guy that hates surrogates because he would like to get sweaty and greasy with the real body of his wife, indeed he is slightly in favor of the Mad Maxers and their weird, hairy prophet (Ving Rhames, but I don’t need to say that to you). So we have a conflicted protagonist, something that already goes beyond a sea cucumber understanding.

 

The wig is supposed to make the Willis’ body much younger and fresher. Instead it makes him look like an extra in a Swedish tv serial. A low budget one. On the other hand, iceblock tough cop Radha Mitchell wears her surrogate like a Chanel.

 

The movie ends up with a crazy nutjob trying to destroy all the robots and their operators. This is partially prevented by The Willis, who manages to save the human operators but lets a crazy powerful virus thing spread around the network and permanently fry all the robots. The world comes to a standstill, as all the robots picturesquely flop to the ground, and the real people emerge from thir houses looking like shit (I hope I am allowed to use the word shit in a TUDelft blog post). So here they are, in the street, wearing dressing gowns and slippers, smelling the air and looking at the sky and each other, and probably having great street community parties (but this is only implied).

This leaves a gigantic plothole that manages to make Bruce Willis’ character look much worse than the baddies. If the whole world is mostly operated by surrogates, and all these surrogates suddenly… cease to be, I think that there will be a bit more problems than a few low-speed car crashes. Like ships colliding with each other, airplanes falling out of the sky, power stations and factories blowing up… Flash Forward got this quite right: disasters and devastation with just a few minutes of blackout. So there would be quite a few dead instantly, and then I can predict a few million indirect deaths as the world’s economy first crashes and then slowly picks up again while all the slug people come out of their houses and get, I don’t know, terrible sunburn. 

And all this why? The only reason is that Bruce Willis has a problem with his wife. So he decides to cause quite a lot of disaster and devastation to a world that -clearly- has decided that they actually like using surrogates. But once the Willis has decided, there is no turning back or offering alternate views.

The true cherry on the cake is the Ving Rhames character, the Prophet. The Prophet characterization was not, shall we say, very light handed.

 

I thought this gesture was reserved for Mafia dons when they say "come to me, my son". No hairspray has been spared to achieve this level of dreadness. Check out the rings too.

 

A perfect example of the trope called the Magical Negro, Rhames prophetically surrounds himself with large, gun-happy idiotic bodyguards. He dies at some time, but his valiant sacrifice fails to provide the "Wow, dude!" plot reversal moment that the writer was probably hoping for.

The problem with this movie is that we are never really told what drives this whole chain of events, and what exactly is so terrible and inhuman and overall super-unbearably-BAD about using surrogates. It is not like they are planning to take over or develop autonomy. Moreover, the fact that the anti-surrogate point of view is championed by fundamentalist technophobic muddy idiots does not help to make it more respectable or attractive (actual plot line, crazy fully human lady with shotgun: "You are an abomination! KABOOM."). We even get a batty old scientist that fails to make a point about why surrogates are so dehumanizing. They just are.

Basically, it is a neophobic movie where the new is bad because it is bad. Perhaps this is entirely appropriate for our neophobic years, were anything can happen and anything can be done, as long as it is done in a virtual world or online.  This is why when watching this movie I was rooting hard for the bad guys. I also found the scene where all the perfect robod bodies fall to the ground never to rise again unbelievably sad. It’s back to the old meatbag for you all! Bruce Willis has decided for you!

 

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