The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Surrogates (2009)

The new Bruce Willis picture "Surrogates" is a smashingly good "B" science fiction movie. It isn't perfect: there is actually about enough story for a Perfect episode of "The Outer Limits" and in feature form, drags just a little. There is also the problem with certain social elements...but I was able to suspend disbelief long enough to have a great time.

The basic premise: that in a near-future most human beings now stay home and travel outside their homes only through "Surrogate" robots that (mostly) look like them, only perfectly aerobicized and younger and better dressed. Tananarive said it was the best excuse for a Hollywood world of perfectly pretty people she'd ever seen. The attraction is the ability to live without fear of violence, disease, or wrinkles. Looks like fun...until someone comes up with a way to kill an "Operator" by killing the Surrogate. And then, as they say, the fun begins.

Bruce Willis plays an FBI agent assigned to solve the murder. He hates Surrogacy, and wishes his wife would unplug herself and meet him in the flesh. The movie never loses sight of its human dimension, and if I'm not overwhelmed with its dialogue, and it feels that they were two eager to pull your attention away from some pressing questions, I still had more fun with it, as an SF movie, than anything I've seen in a long time. Even Star Trek wasn't a great SF was a great Star Trek film, which ain't exactly the same thing.


Exactly how expensive are these Surrogates? In the world of this film, it seems that there is no poverty save voluntary poverty (for those Luddites who refuse to use Surrogates), so...I'm just not clear on how many days of work it takes the average person to purchase such a cutting-edge tool. Hell, not everyone can afford an iPhone. Or a bicycle. So...let's assume that this is an incredibly wealthy world, and that Surrogates cost about as much as a decent used car? That's about as far as I can go.

But even if the vast majority use them sometime, it is also clear that cheaper models don't get full sensory range. So what about the poorer folks: they never leave their apartments? No one who can only afford "Surries" with sight and hearing wants to go out and see a movie with friends? Eat a hot dog on the beach? There is no sign of anyone on the street except perfect people. Yeah, there are plenty of people who would be happy to stay home and hooked up...but also plenty of people who couldn't afford top of the line models, and would want to have real sex, eat food in public, walk the boulevard. You don't see ANY of these people, and I don't believe it. I understand why: it wouldn't have made as cool a movie. And for ninety minutes I can ignore the voices that say: "technology this powerful this cheap? What does it imply about the rest of the world..?"

Because that would ruin the movie. Which is really great fun. I'd give it a very solid "B" and recommend it with only tiny reservations.


Mark Jones said...

The wife and I saw that this weekend. I had many of the same issues with the movie that you did. Also--if people spend virtually all their time interacting via surrogate...can you say bed sores? And there's no way Real Bruce Willis could possibly have the strength or stamina he displayed if he's spent all his time plugged in. Not, at least, unless he spends hours every day working out--and there's no evidence that this is so.

Also, who use a surrogate to work as a delivery man or a janitor? You'd spend your hard earned money on a surry just for that? And it would have to be you 'cause no way is an employer going to spend the money for a janitorial surry when a real flesh and blood person can do the job.

And CAN surrogates eat? And if so...eww. Who cleans they out? And if not, most restaurants and bars are going to go out of business since nobody goes out in their own flesh anymore, though I suppose delivery shops are doing landmark business....

James Davis Nicoll said...

I would be amazed if there is even an indirect connection [1] but this sounds a bit like the set-up (but not the story) in Keith Laumer's 1966 novelette "The Body Builders".

1: Was Robert Venditti even born by 1966?

Pagan Topologist said...

I remember that Keith Laumer novelette. Weren't the machines called "Servo's" therein? There was a group called the "Single Servo Socialists" and another fringe group which did not use the servos at all. Or am I thinking of yet another story with this kind of setup?

Nancy Lebovitz said...

And for ninety minutes I can ignore the voices that say: "technology this powerful this cheap? What does it imply about the rest of the world..?"

Is there any science fiction which really does a good job with that sort of question? I'll tentatively nominate Heinlein and Bujold, but I wouldn't be surprised if they left out important implications.

Anonymous said...

The Surrogate technology would make the robots themselves obsolete.

No need to have a machine walking around the world when all the experiences could be played back in cyberspace.

Anonymous said...

Additionally the Protagonist becomes a Villain at the end.

How many people died when every surrogate lost control of the machine they were operating and they crashed into residences, the following fires and utter lack of response from emergency services.

How many trillions of dollars of property damage were just caused?

All that damage done just so he could have a chance to reconnect with his wife. (maybe their relationship will flower again while he spends the rest of his life in jail)

Scott said...

I don't think saving 7 billion lives makes you a villain, even if you don't then save a zillion dollars worth of private property. He didn't *cause* the meltdown, he just didn't stop it.

And of course if Steve is right about the dangers of obesity and inactivity then he saved far more lives than he let go of. ;-)

SF and fantasy are mostly indistinguishable to me now; the future I see is so different from what's presented.

Anonymous said...

David Brin has an interesting book out with a similar theme. It's called _Kiln People_. The surrogates are called "dittos". They only last one day, and if they don't make it home to upload then you don't know what happened to them that day. But for all intents and purposes, while they are walking around out in the world, they are you, thinking and feeling and making their decisions as you.

There's also a racism angle. The dittos have skin colors and those skin colors have social meanings, while all originals have privilege over all dittos. The same person can occupy multiple places on the social pecking order, all at the same time.

It was an interesting idea, executed well. If you haven't read it I encourage you to check it out.

Steven Barnes said...

I don't think it would be possible to create a synthetic world that actually was completely convincing, from all directions, for all people. Heck, THIS world doesn't make sense a lot of the time, because you can't have 100% of the data necessary to cross-reference or extrapolate. I would never have believed 9/11 could happen...and then America would attack Iraq when the hijackers were Saudis. Never in a million years would I have bought THAT in a movie or book. You'd need to be a being of infinite knowledge to do such a thing. And trust me: SF writers ain't that.

Unknown said...

just an fyi, Surrogates the movie is based off of the very good graphic novel by Robert Vendetti. In his story, a large part of the state of georgia has a large segment of the population, all of them upper class, who use surrogates. Poor folks can't afford it. UNion workers are fighting against surrogates since employers don't have to pay insurance and won't increase wages so that their workers can purchase them

So the graphic novels (there are two), deal with those issues.

Unknown said...

I would never have believed 9/11 could happen...and then America would attack Iraq when the hijackers were Saudis.

I have to admit, Iraq was my first thought for the culprit when 9/11 happened; they seemed the country who'd have a motive. But once it became clear to me that Al Qaeda did it (and I remember finding the information Tony Blair brought forward on that score pretty darn convincing within days), that Al Qaeda was hiding in Afghanistan, and that Iraq didn't seem to have a blind thing to do with it, I wasn't expecting us to wind up at war with Iraq. When the idea of war with Iraq first got floated after 9/11 (well before it actually happened), I thought the sensible people had beaten it back, and that we wouldn't be going for what looked like an obviously stupid war, on top of the Afghanistan one. I guess the lesson I learned was never to get too complacent about that kind of thing.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I'm a little late to the "Think and Grow Rich" discussion. I picked up a copy of the book from the library but I have a question. The version in our library is "revised and updated for the 21st century". Apparently, that means Dr. Arthur A. Pell swapped out some of Hill's anecdotes and stories and replaced them with anecdotes and stories about Bill Gates, Arnold Schwarzenegger, etc. In your opinion, how necessary is it to read Hill's original book without the "updates"?

Steven Barnes said...


Very important. The original version has lasted seventy years. The new "updated" version...who knows? I have no idea what might have been changed, but I doubt this classic was improved. It's possible that the new anecdotes are equal, but that's about it. My suggestion is that if you haven't read the book a dozen times, you haven't read it. So read the version you have...then pick up a copy of the original, and do your own comparison. And get back to us about it, o.k?

Metalsmith said...

"I don't think saving 7 billion lives makes you a villain, even if you don't then save a zillion dollars worth of private property. He didn't *cause* the meltdown, he just didn't stop it."

The he didn't do anything defense is baloney. The main character made a conscious decision to press the cancel button. By that button press he became the villain and the worst criminal in existence.

Just because he didn't decide to kill everyone doesn't absolve him of responsibility for all the random deaths he consigned people to when their homes caught fire.

I guess its OK to murder random people as long as you're working for the larger goal of saving people from obesity?

7 Billion? I was just assuming the USA. If you want to say it was the whole world then we should revise the damage estimates.

About a Quadrillion dollars of Property damage. But you don't seem to care about people loosing their homes. You must be subprime mortgage lender, good job.

The immediate deaths would be in the hundreds of millions. The long term deaths after the breakdown of health, fire, and emergency services would be about a billion.

How are cities getting food with wreckage packing the streets and highways? How many trains just hit cars on crosswalks and derailed?