Ghosts in the shell

Wasn’t there a movie, a few years ago, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger was cloned and then had to deal with his double? Well, now it’s Bruce Williss turn, or something similar.

The difference in Surrogates is that it’s not a clone of himself our hero has to deal with, it’s a sort of physical robot-avatar of himself. For, in the future world depicted by Surrogates, you can get a very lifelike cyborg of yourself to go out and do all the things that have to happen in the world outside your bedroom.

Meanwhile, you lie on something that looks a bit like a cross between an operating table and a dentist’s chair, wired up to some gizmo that allows you to control your surrogate with your brain waves.
The idea of controlling an aspect of external reality with your brain waves is, of course, a classic piece of technological wish fulfilment that also formed the basis for the recent skop, skiet en donner flick Gamer.

This wish is an extension of the computer world in which we all partly live, an echo of Facebook, computer gaming and the like, as well as all those fantasies about virtual realities in which you can put on your headset and go virtual bungee-jumping or trot off to the local virtual whorehouse while your spouse thinks you’re just playing Dungeons and Dragons. It’s an idea that offers a new way to put yourself or a version of yourself into the world out there— while, note, remaining a sophisticated kind of couch potato, which is probably the kind of being the movie industry would ideally like us all to be.

The Matrix has already explored a species of this notion, though the philosophers of consciousness tell us that it would in fact be impossible to produce a sufficiently convincing simulacrum of reality without the huge range of real inputs we experience. It can’t be done via wire. You can’t put it straight into your brain. And David Cronenberg, in eXistenZ, argued that virtual reality may be all very well but we forget our bodies at our peril. Much though we may like to, we cannot entirely dematerialise ourselves.

That’s the moral of Surrogates—kind of. Willis plays a cop whose surrogate self is working on a difficult case; when he’s pulled off the case (skulduggery is afoot, of course) and his surrogate is locked up in its pod to recharge for a week or two, he has to get up from his gizmo-bed and personally, physically, go out and find the truth.

In this world of surrogates, not to mention this world of simplistic Hollywood moral schemata, there is also a resistance movement that wants to return to real bodies in the real world. They are set against the general trend, doubtless an extension of the American consumerist dream, in which most people have avatars out there, shopping and fucking and so forth. This all provides some plot, but the implications are not really explored with much imagination.

A proper contrast of real-body versus surrogate participation in reality is not investigated, except that we are asked to assume that a real engagement with the world is better than letting your artificial alter ego do it for you. Or such at least is the film’s allegedly moral assumption, in line with the general presumption in Hollywood-Mind that the authentic is always better than the artificial, and that it is bravely life-affirming to plump for the real over the fake.

You would be quite justified in pointing out that this is all a bit thick coming from a Dream Factory that mass-produces virtual selves for us to identify with at the movies, and from a society that despite its stated ideals privileges the skilful fake way above the gritty truth of authenticity. It refuses to admit that often authenticity is a matter of skilful construction, and anyway the alleged interest in the real is one that is consistently undermined by the movies’ (and everyone else’s) endless production of flattering fantasies.

Surrogates at least allows a figure such as Willis to make some play with his appearance, the all-important surface that makes or breaks a movie star. We know that in real life Willis has lost most of his hair by now, and the contrast in the movie between his smoothly youthful surrogate and the balding older man who eventually staggers off his gizmo-bed is indeed piquant.

There is also some good stuff about getting a cheap, entry-level surrogate for yourself when in need of such— like when your official surrogate has been put on ice. What features can you do without? Do you really need a penis today? This is a small, amusing snapshot of one of the conflicts at the heart of consumerism, of the business of being dependent on certain manufacturers and service providers. We’ve all gone through something similar when dealing with airtime, say, like deciding between a contract and pay-as-you-go, or trying to work out whether to fix some short-lived appliance at great cost or just buy a new one.

One might argue, likewise, that we all deal with this on a psychological level, too. Which of my personae should I take to this particular dinner party? Can I maintain Cheery Self at work this week? And so on. Pity we can’t separate ourselves into detachable working units; we’d get so much more done, and we could have some quiet fun on the side at the same time. (That’s if having multiple surrogates are allowed. Such things are heavily regulated in the film—does this future world have a Republican president?)

Surrogates suggests that a certain number of people—most, perhaps—would use their surrogates to do more extreme things than they might if their real bodies were at stake. Not just bungee-jumping (something I would hesitate to try, even virtually) but wild sex, mad drugs and so on. Here we come to the nub of what fascinates about the surrogate-self idea, and our capacity for multiple identifications, but the film is moralistic about such things and, anyway, doesn’t want to think about them in any depth. It wants to get on with the plot.

Which makes Surrogates interesting for the ideas it raises, but not very interesting as a movie. The ideas are just there to generate plot, as is usual with Hollywood movies, rather than plot being there to explore ideas. It has some features worth looking at, but the storyline becomes a version of a whole lot of plot points and developments you’ve seen before and, if not, can easily predict.

Surrogates, avatars, alter egos, virtual selves, personae ... Where’s a contemporary Tarkovsky to do something really interesting with this, like he turned science fiction into philosophy in Solaris and Stalker? So much multiplicity and richness, complicated consciousnesses and capacities for imaginative self-extension—and all a film such as Surrogates can do is tell us the same old, same old story.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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