Categories
2 Stars Movies

Life by Remote Control: Surrogates

Surrogates is an elegantly literal twist on the classic sci-fi theme of living through avatars. Cyberpunk writers William Gibson and Neal Stephenson pioneered virtual reality as a setting for the dramatic exaggeration of issues first sparked by the very beginnings of internet chat rooms. Their predictions have already come true, in part, in the form of social networking and immersive games like Second Life and World of Warcraft. Surrogates takes this conceit one step further, but fails to address moss of the questions it raises. To look deeper than I think the film supports, you might start to think about the personas we craft for ourselves in different contexts, how we dress and behave in the privacy of our homes versus how we do at work or play.

Rosamund Pike in Surrogates

Directed by Jonathan Mostow (of the excellent nail-biter Breakdown, but also the dud Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines), the film is based on the comic book The Surrogates by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele. The premise requires a long, involved prologue necessary just to explain it. This very near future is defined by the technology for remote-controlled androids, which are not unlike cars: affordable enough for the majority of the population to own one, available in tiered models that reflect your income and taste, and a way of life ingrained into society just as much as cars have shaped cities and the highways that network them together.

Taken to its logical extreme, a world populated by remote controlled robots affects everything from the workplace to warfare. Beauty parlors have morphed into something like hi-tech auto repair shops, where people trick their surrogates out with new rubber faces and super-strong limbs. Patriot Act-like mass surveillance is conducted through the robots’ very eyes, without their owners’ permission, in an impossible-to-miss metaphor for Bush-era warrantless wiretaps. War is now a deathless abstract resembling a computer game: faceless drones teem distant battlegrounds in a sick parody of today’s airborne Predator drones and precision-guided missiles. Notice also the spotless art direction: everything is clean because robots don’t eat or litter.

When so much of the fictional ramifications are thought out, it’s disappointing when so many other obvious implications are left unclear. We’re told the crime rate has fallen dramatically since most people started living through robot surrogates, but why, necessarily? Perhaps because there’s no such thing as raping or murdering a robot. But why do FBI agents have such luxurious homes, if their jobs are less necessary in this utopia?

Radha Mitchell and Bruce Willis in Surrogates

One interesting wrinkle barely touched upon is that some characters, including Greer (Bruce Willis) and his wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike), have selected surrogates modeled on their own natural physical appearances. Younger, stronger, and more virile, perhaps, but recognizably their idealized likenesses. There are only a few examples of users that opt to mix race and/or genders, let alone go to further extremes. The most outwardly unusual looking surrogates we see merely have impossible complexions. Perhaps the Greers are not fully committed to living this way. Why not explore this point more? A failure of the imagination.

But by far the biggest absurdity is the claim that 98% of the population lives through surrogates. The film would have been better off by sidestepping the question of whether or not much of the population could afford state-of-the-art consumer electronics. If only a portion of the population in 2010 has access to things like health care and broadband, it’s certainly absurd to pretend for even a silly sci-fi movie that we all might some day be able to afford personal robots. But then again, there are hundreds of millions of cars in use worldwide today, so perhaps it is not that outrageous to hypothesize that someday we all might be remotely piloting some kind of robot around all day every day.

While many other people, including his wife, choose to live life through their surrogates, FBI agents are given turbocharged loaner models in some kind of perk akin to today’s company cars. Greer behaves differently as himself or when working through his surrogate. He spouts tough, sarcastic, noir-ish detective dialogue when working, but turns meek and emotional when living as a “meatball.”

Ving Rhames and James Cromwell appear in disappointingly fleeting roles. Rosamund Pike is obviously very beautiful, but her wide circular glassy eyes frankly look slightly odd from certain angles, making her an excellent casting choice.

There are fewer android-related special effects than you might imagine, especially when compared to Westworld, The Stepford Wives, Alien, and A.I., all of which revel in revealing robotic guts beneath rubber skin (images one might even fetishize as a literal “cyberporn”). Rather, the film’s best special effect is when a surrogate deactivates and comes to a complete halt. I can’t guess how it was done, but it’s clearly more complicated than simply freezing the frame. It’s very eerie to see a person, however artificial-seeming, simply and silently freeze as the light of life goes out of their eyes.

A ostentatious dangling plot thread about Greer’s dead son goes nowhere. Even the revelation of what caused his death is a misfire, and has no impact upon the story. Why would a painful loss in the family compel the Greers to live virtual lives? Everyone else is only doing it because they want to appear attractive.

The final moments are lame and non-dramatic, relying on unseen newscasters to explicitly outline the themes of the movie, for the slower members of the audience, perhaps.

Categories
4 Stars Movies

What Did I Ever Do to You? David Mamet’s Homicide

Detective Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna) comes to see himself as torn between two discrete worlds in David Mamet’s Homicide (1991). Only when maneuvered into a position in which he must choose, the duality unravels and he finds he is no one special and belongs nowhere in particular.

Gold’s partner Sullivan (William H. Macy) has an unreserved man-crush on him, taking every opportunity to publicly butter him up and extol the therapeutic pleasures of police work. He reminds their peers that his revered partner is “Bobby The Orator,” so-called for his skill at negotiation. Indeed the moniker is deserving, for he is called on to calm a rabid dog with mere words, and later sweet-talk a ferociously stubborn mother into betraying her son. But Gold is certainly no action hero, confirmed in a early scene as he is beaten up and disarmed by an overweight civilian, in the sanctuary of the police station. By the end of the film, he has lost his sidearm a second time and is quickly physically bested again by Randolph (Ving Rhames). Is it too much of a stretch to link his failure to control his weapon with impotence and castration? He certainly feels perpetually aggrieved. At each unfair turn in these very unfair events, he repeats his refrain: “What did I ever do to you?”

William H. Macy and Joe Mantegna in Homicide
“You got some heavy troubles on your mind? Huh, babe? We’ll work it out. We’ll play some cops and robbers. We’ll bust this big criminal. We’ll swagger around.”

Bobby accidentally comes across a seemingly mundane murder while chasing down the sexier Randolph case (the kind of unambiguous, action-packed police work, with measurable results, that grants Gold and Sullivan existential satisfaction). Elderly Jewish woman Mrs. Klein has been found murdered in her inner-city candy shop. Everything points to a simple robbery, “everything” being, of course, the supposition that poor neighborhood African Americans have robbed a rare white business. Klein’s son, not quite grieving but resigned to a lifetime of persecution, sighs “It never ends.” When Bobby asks “What never ends?”, granddaughter (Rebecca Pigeon) coldly clarifies for him: “On the jews.” Already the murder escalates from a robbery to a hate crime, and this is a strong whiff of catnip for a man who also believes himself to be perpetually put-upon and aggrieved. As the Klein family correctly infers, Bobby is a Jew. But he wears a 5-point star as a cop. His sublimated Jewish pride only comes out in defense against the occasional professional flare-up in which he is called a “kike.”

Fittingly for a detective celebrated for a mastery of words, pursuing the Klein murder case is more an act of literary scholarship than one of police procedure. Gold’s investigation brings him to a Jewish research library where he senses deeper mysteries encoded in his ancestral Yiddish. His single best clue is the tantalizing derivation of the nonsense-seeming word “Grofatz.” All of this leads him into a confrontation with a decades-old group of Zionist warriors (who may be or may not be the Mossad, although the name is not mentioned in the film) who awaken him to his vengeful Jewish identity. Hungry for the rush of positive action that his cop side is currently denying him, he elbows his way into their ranks and becomes addicted to violent action.

Rebecca Pigeon in Homicide
“Hey, you’re better than an aquarium, you know that? There’s something happening with you every minute.”

But Homicide is a policier on the surface only. Like most of Mamet’s plays and screenplays, the plot is structured around a deep, complex confidence game. House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, Glengarry Glen Ross, Spartan, and Redbelt all feature a long con of one form or another at their cores. A sucker is a sucker because of the truism that if one looks hard enough for something, one will find it. Most of Gold’s apparent clues and leads evaporate into meaningless happenstance. What is at stake is not what he thinks, and he finds himself used and abandoned.

Special mention goes to fine cinematography by the great Roger Deakins. The decaying Baltimore provides for two spectacular chase scenes, one along the rooftops and another below the asphalt. Each coils into a labyrinth, spiraling down and in, deeper and deeper, until Bobby encounters physically powerless but immovable minotaur-like figures the disarmed man must battle with his words alone.


Must read: Homicide: What Are You, Then? by Stuart Klawans