Nov 09

Robotic Midsomers Murders

Do You See + FT6 comments • 246 views

“Surrogates is not that far off the mark…”


Here is a teaser which tries to convince us that the robot puppet movie Surrogates is in anyway the near future of humanity. The idea that in just ten years nearly the entirety of the North American population will be agoraphobic housebound ninnies strapped into chairs controlling a robot version of them seems to fail the basic rule of science fiction. Namely how did we get there? Well according to the film

Step 1: James Cromwell invents the stem chair which can wirelessly and remotely control and feedback data to a user of a remote robot. It is invented for disabled people.

Step 2: Rich people start getting lifelike surrogates of themselves for a laugh.

Step 3: Within ten years the cost of this technology, and the availability of teh surrogates has replaced all humans with their surrogates.

Step 4: Crime is eliminated.

Some of these steps require somewhat implausible leaps. Step 3 strikes me as being a somewhat odd step, just looking at basic economics. Building that many robots? Not to mention the problems with glitches in wireless transmission and what happens when the basic novelty wears off. Because in reality with these perfect superhuman robot bodies, everyone is still doing the same shit jobs they were doing before. So the baker is now a robot baker, the cop a robot cop. And the bum, well a robot bum. Which then leads to the ridiculousness of Step 4.

Step 4 suggests that because we are not in our bodies, there will be no crimes against the body. Murder is eliminated. Completely forgetting that everyone is in charge of a pretty unstoppable killing machine / robot. Which not only can get into any building to kill anyone, but also comes with the cast iron potential alibi that someone has hijacked your surrogate and is using it instead of you. Indeed incidents of theft should skyrocket. And all of these problems come out within the hugely narrow parameters the film has set for itself. Namely that society will not really change except everyone will look a bit plastic.

And all of this in in service to a pretty dumb murder mystery plot which I have already spoiled below but frankly isn’t much of a spoiler. All said Surrogates is 90 minutes of Bruce Willis + fighting robots. Its Westworld where Westworld itself is our world. Basically preposterous, but at least vague fun. Just do not think about its premise for a second or you will want to find a Surrogate to watch it for you.

&*James Cromwell as a cameo avuncular minor character. Hmm, I wonder whodunnit?


  1. 1
    swanstep on 18 Nov 2009 #

    Because in reality with these perfect superhuman robot bodies, everyone is still doing the same shit jobs they were doing before. So the baker is now a robot baker, the cop a robot cop. And the bum, well a robot bum.
    I agree this *sounds* like a kind of error. People tend to choose *very* glamorous/wish-fulfilling avatars of themselves for on-line worlds of various sorts, why wouldn’t they (so it seems) choose just as idelaized real world avatars? The real world could then become like the world of beer ads where everyone is a model etc..

    But all of that’s a mistake. Total avatar-dom whether it’s done in the Matrix or out in the real world probably isn’t ever going to be computable/codable/done in simulation like that, rather it’ll have to (just as the movies respectively suggest) function like a prosthetic…. your whole nervous system tuned to your body with all of its very specific timing and inner emulational structure will having to do all the analog computation/non-computational being-in-the-world work that can then drive the Matrix or Real World into subsequent states. In sum, it’s no accident and almost certainly physically necessary that when Neo pops out of the Matrix he has essentially the same body that he had in the Matrix, and in Surrogates (which I’ve not seen) the same idea seems basically correct. Of course, as you mention, the idea that crime would end (as opposed to continuing in new forms) seems preposterous, and I’m sure there are many many other problems too, but non-arbitrary/non-wish-fulfilling total avatars are a (depressing) feature not a bug!

  2. 2
    lonepilgrim on 18 Nov 2009 #

    Can’t remember if you reviewed it but I found Gamer a far more compelling movie on a vaguely similar theme – I gave up watching Surrogates after about 20 minutes because it was so dull visually.

    There’s a riff on the shit jobs avatar experience over at The Onion here:


  3. 3
    Pete Baran on 19 Nov 2009 #

    I was going to do a double review of Gamer and Surrogates cos they have so much in common. But actually they are the antithesis of each other: Surrogates is a dull film with and charismatic star, while Gamer is an exciting film with a dull star.

    When I say film in the above paragraph I mean “experience”. My take of Nevedine/Taylors “serious” film is coming up. A tough one to get a hold on cos it was almost brilliant, though its flaw was almost the same as Surrogates.

  4. 4
    Tracer Hand on 19 Nov 2009 #

    To my mind, you hire Bruce Willis for one facial expression, the slightly bug-eyed one that says “This destruction is absurdly amusing”. Tarantino knew this and gave him a couple of great scenes in which to deploy it – finding the machine gun on the kitchen counter, and looking through the weaponry at the pawn shop before settling on a Samurai sword. Die Hard is full of it. And we get it here just once, when he’s driving like gangbusters after a hijacked surrogate who at one point manages to clamp herself onto his speeding car. And there it is, the bug eyes, the concealed WTFness – the Willis Look is a descendant of that line in The Thing, “You gotta be fucking kidding me.”

    No the movie made no sense but I didn’t particularly mind. It’s too bad that the whole thing was premised on the old chestnut that “If you die in a dream/the Matrix/whatever, you die in REAL LIFE!” No you don’t. You just don’t. That’s the entire point!

  5. 5
    Alex S on 25 Nov 2009 #

    As with Whiteout, this was a comics adaptation where the usual ‘oh but the Graphic Novel (because that is a more adult term) was so much better, they totally lost the complexity’ does not apply, because in both cases the comic was a) a transparent pitch for a film adaptation and b) not very good.

  6. 6
    Pete on 25 Nov 2009 #

    Oh, I quite liked the Whiteout comics original, as a low-key potboiling crime thriller. Have thought of zero things to say about the film though.

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