Saturday, March 27, 2010


Jonathan Mostow is a decent 2nd-tier maker of potboilers including U-571 and Terminator 3 (both featuring technology and in the latter, killer robots), and so was perhaps just the right person to make Surrogates (2009), a sub-Avatar meditation on the idea of virtual identities in the wired world. I am surprised I have seen so little comment on Cameron's use of the term "avatar" which on the internet means a handle for a self-constructed profile, which may or may not be accurate; in any case, your "avatar" is your virtual face.

Surrogates pursues this idea more directly (Avatar has other ecological fish to fry), and to its credit, avoids the term "robot," since a robot, properly speaking, is at least partially autonomous, whereas these machines are carrying out the operator's will from moment-to-moment. These surrogates are much more literally avatars, the public face of an individual. I admire Bruce Willis's good humor about himself, given that his surrogate sports a head of hair the likes of which have not been seen on his scalp since before Moonlighting. The actors' images are otherwise digitally airbrushed and, it appears, their performances are "smoothed out" -- micro-expressions and tiny shifts of weight removed to make them look more mechanical. The idea is that this would be the way we would present ourselves to the world.

An autobiographical note. For about 20 years I was a transactional attorney, negotiating contracts in the entertainment and communications field. After a few years of fumbling, I good to be pretty good at it. One of the "tricks" for which I was noted was that I liked to see people face-to-face; both the people in my company whose position I was representing and the people on the other side of the table. There is an incredible amount communicated through face, tilt of the head, body language, hands and even tiny vocal inflections not adequately communicated on a phone line. Even today I think I would prefer an in-person meeting to the best video conference. It's one of the things that makes live theater unique, even after its story-telling methods have been co-opted by film and television. There is literally nothing like being in the same room with a real person.

Surrogates is about a society that has elected to forego that experience, to substitute a simulation; the metaphor for a life lived through Facebook, Twitter and blog comments is unmistakeable. It doesn't have a lot to say about it: the film starts as a sort-of bent detective film, and the starts to morph into something like Unbreakable, unsurprising, given the movie's graphic novel origins. Sadly, the solution to the story is exactly what you expected, and features lines such as, "My son will not have died in vain" and "It all ends here." [Personal note again-- I have not been as prolific a writer as I would have hoped, and one of the reasons has to be the paralyzing fear that I will write a line like "It all ends here." Should I do so, I think I would have to close my laptop lid forever.]

But the movie does have the saving virtue of a brisk 90-minute running time, and Mr. Mostow and his associates can be proud that their reach has not exceeded their modest grasp.

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