Technology has always been a mixed blessing.
Consider: Harnessing the atom begat atom bombs. The internal combustion engine begat car accidents. The printing press begat math textbooks. Every technological step forward, it seems, comes with a slight shuffle back—or perhaps sideways—into some unintended consequence.
But what if there was a technology that allowed us to reduce crime and eliminate racism? One that kept us safer than a full-body airbag? One that would allow us to skip shaving for days and shuffle around in our pajamas all day long? That would be a technology without a downside, right?
Welcome to the age of the surrogate—a time in the not-so-distant future when humanity enlists mechanical avatars to do our living for us.
These surrogates are ageless, tireless robots that have (according to marketing promises made by VSI, the company that manufactures them) the durability of a machine combined with the lifelike looks and sensuality of a human being. And they’re hooked right up to your consciousness. Whatever they experience, you do, too. And they can be made to look just like you.
Really, though, why settle for something that looks like you when you could look so much better? Why not give yourself a set of six-pack abs, for instance. Or a full head of hair? Not to mention robotic upgrades to speed, strength and agility. No wonder VSI brags that its surrogates are "Life … only better."
Until, that is, some surrogates start getting zapped by a strange weapon that fries their circuits, blows out their eyeballs and—oh, yeah—melts the brains of the surrogate’s human controller. Suddenly, after years of relative peace and quiet, law enforcement has a criminal to catch. "Looks like we’ve got a homicide on our hands," says an FBI agent named Greer—through his surrogate, of course.
The case takes a virtual turn for the worse when the killer zaps Greer’s helicopter pilot, sending the FBI agent’s surrogate crashing into—gasp!—a completely surrogate-free zone. It’s a barren place where avatar-hating humans promptly blow Greer’s unit into a pile of spare parts.
Without a proxy to wander the streets for him, Greer decides that the time has come to venture out of his apartment himself in search of the truth.
He discovers it’s a dangerous thing, actually walking out your front door.
About 98% of humans worldwide use surrogates, we’re told, and most have grown so dependent upon their avatars that they rarely even get out of their chairs. Except for a handful of humans who have turned their back on this technology, Agent Greer seems to be the only human in the film who feels at least a little uncomfortable with the whole setup.
Greer desperately tries to pull his wife, Maggie, out of her surrogate dependency and encourages her to go on vacation with him—not via their avatars, mind you, but a real vacation where they actually leave home … and leave their surrogate units at home.
As he grows used to life without a surrogate, Greer wonders whether his former reliance on it has, perhaps, blinded him to the essence of life: that it’s meant to be lived. He begins to relish the world around him, from the feeling of fresh air on his face to the way his heart quickens in moments of danger. And he begins to understand what the non-surrogate-using humans—dismissively called dreads—are talking about when they insist that humanity has been "sold a lie."
Moreover, Greer is one of the few characters in the film who genuinely wants to save the lives of real people—the so-called "meat bags" who control their surrogates from the comfort of their own homes.
The dreads live in isolated, impoverished, surrogate-free "reservations" that have taken on the flavor of a religious cult. The leader of the dreads is known as the Prophet, and he speaks with mellow fervor, like a revival preacher before his morning coffee. "What you see is not what God made you for," he says, referring to life lived through surrogates. "We’re not meant to experience the world through a machine."
As the movie progresses, we increasingly get the sense that surrogates violate the natural order. That feeling is reinforced when VSI intones, "We are the creators." It’s very clear that the corporation has overstepped its bounds.
After one of the Prophet’s followers gets killed, we witness a spiritually tinged funeral ceremony. "It’s not an ending," the Prophet says, "but a new beginning."
One of the first surrogate "victims" Greer discovers—a beautiful, scantily dressed blond woman—actually belonged to a an overweight, middle-aged man. When Greer and his partner, Peters, walk through the dead man’s flat, it’s filled with women’s clothing.
Female surrogates frequently dress in short dresses, cleavage-accenting tops and bikinis. Half-completed surrogates at VSI are only partially clothed. Greer’s wife, Maggie—who believes life without a surrogate isn’t worth living—runs (virtually) with a wild crowd. She seems open to the flirtatious advances of another man’s surrogate. We see surrogates kiss passionately and hear one reference to the male anatomy.
After losing his own avatar, Greer considers picking up a temporary surrogate from a seedy, bargain-bin shop that doubles as something akin to a porn shop or brothel.
Surrogates may be durable, but they aren’t indestructible—something we learn again and again.
Greer’s surrogate is particularly mistreated. His unit gets partially zapped by the surrogate weapon, "survives" an explosive helicopter crash, is run over by an oncoming vehicle, falls from a precipitous height (we see his head and torso bang off metal beams during the descent), loses an arm (the stub spurts green goo), gets a shotgun blast to the chest and, finally, has his warranty permanently revoked courtesy of another blast to the head. The real Greer finds his unit’s remains hanging in a crucifix-like position in the middle of the dread reservation, with the words "die, robo pig" scrawled on its mechanized corpse.
Surrogates are shot, stabbed, beaten, run over and kicked until their false faces come off. In one scene, they’re knocked down like bowling pins by a car. As their bodies pile up on the hood of the moving vehicle, one surrogate looks quizzically through the windshield. Through it all, surrogate victims are generally emotionless and oblivious to pain.
The only time the surrogates ever seem truly bothered is when they’re zapped by the film’s doomsday device, which leaves their skulls smoking and their eyes vaporized.
Only one human being actually dies onscreen. He commits suicide by swallowing a pill, probably cyanide. Another person gets repeatedly shot offscreen (though we do see the rooms of her house flicker as the gun discharges). Several humans die (offscreen) when their surrogates are zapped. The blast, we’re told, essentially liquefies their brains. Their corpses are caked with blood that has trickled from their eyes, nose and mouth.
Greer gets beaten severely when he visits the reservation, and he’s the victim of a jarring car accident. But he gives as good as he gets: He smashes one surrogate’s face with his foot and mows down others during a heated chase.
[Spoiler Warning] Near the conclusion, all the world’s surrogates suddenly shut down—laid low on streets and sidewalks as if Armageddon had come and gone. The scene isn’t violent, per se, but it does feel somewhat disturbing. And because some surrogates were driving cars, massive pileups result.
Crude or Profane Language
Three s-words. God’s name is misused 10 or so times, and Jesus’ name is abused five. Milder profanities include "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch" and "d‑‑n."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Surrogates get "high" by holding a glowing blue tube to their bodies and zapping themselves with it. Greer walks in on several surrogates doing this in his own apartment. He pulls his wife’s surrogate aside and furiously asks her, "How long have you been jacking?"
Greer’s human wife takes loads of prescription drugs. The medication, we’re given to believe, helps her cope with the tragic death of her son. In truth, Maggie isn’t coping at all. To avoid her grief, she loses herself in her surrogate’s virtual existence and takes pills to get by.
Greer is shown drinking alcohol and taking a bottle back to his room.
Over the last few years, moviegoers have been treated to loads of what might be termed tech-terror films—stories in which humanity finds itself under siege from the machines we’ve created and love so much. Often, as in Eagle Eye, 9, and the Terminator and Matrix franchises, the machines have become sentient and then gone very, very bad.
Based on a graphic novel, Surrogates flips the genre’s standard conventions a bit. Here, the machines are not bad, really. They’re compliant and helpful. Rather, it’s our own human weaknesses that sour things. Our sloth. Our lust. Our pride. Accordingly, the movie’s cautionary worldview takes on an almost biblical tint at times. Surrogates have become humanity’s ultimate temptation. But as surrogates become more human, we become less so.
Hand in hand with that message is the assertion that the surrogates constitute a kind of drug. Dr. Cantor, the man who created the surrogates, tells Greer that humanity has turned into a burgeoning mass of surrogate-junkies. The only solution, he says, is to kill all the surrogate users and start from scratch. "Kill the addict to kill the addiction," he suggests.
Like most films of this kind, Surrogates reflects a growing unease with our relationship to technology. Many of us not only work on computers all day but spend hours online at home as well—writing e-mails, updating Facebook pages, tweeting our followers. Many of us have "friends" we’ve never met—relationships conducted solely online.
Surrogates forces us to ponder what might happen if someone flipped a master switch and shut down the Internet. How long would it take for us to adapt to a new, truly wireless world? Weeks? Months? Ever?
It’s a fascinating issue on which to ruminate. But you don’t need to see this crass and extraordinarily violent movie (for a PG-13, anyway) to do so. Because even as Surrogates prods us to ponder what it truly means to be human, the film dehumanizes (literally and figuratively) most of its characters at the same time.