Surrogates (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, disturbing images, language, sexuality and a drug-related scene.
Length: 89 minutes
Grade: C+CBB+=B
Budget: $80 million
Box Office: $117 million (38 U.S., 74 Intl., 5 DVD)

Written by: Michael Ferris & John Brancato (Terminator 3 + 4, Primeval, and Catwoman), based on the graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele
Directed by: Jonathon Mostow (Them, Terminator 3, and U-571)
Starring: Bruce Willis and Radha Mitchell
With: James Cromwell, Ving Rhames, Boris Kodjoe, and Rosamund Pike.

In a future where everyone lives vicariously through robotic avatars, crime has been eliminated but some are complaining that the technology is eradicating everything it means to be human. Then, when users start being mysteriously killed by a device aimed at their surrogates, the future of the entire project depends on the efforts an aging detective himself ambivalent about the use of these devices.

Entertainment Value: C+
Despite having heard some negative reviews, I enjoyed this alright. It wasn’t great, but for a science fiction action movie with some philosophical intent, it was fine. Neither my wife nor I could understand why crime would be eliminated by these devices, but we decided to just accept that premise for the sake of the movie. At least this was far less offensive than the similarly-themed hard R movie, Gamer.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity C, Violence D+, Language C
This is rightly PG-13, possibly PG-15, but not as bad as many in that genre. The sex is implied and the language is occasional medium profanity. Violence is the main concern with lots of people being killed (and shown with blood from head wounds), robots being shown with eyes burned out (it’s creepy) and car chases. Also, in one scene people’s surrogates use some sort of electronic device to get a drug sensation.

Significant Content: B
Again, in a much better way than Gamer, this movie raises serious questions about the evolving practice of using avatars to represent ourselves to others in virtual worlds. Safety and youth may not be the most important things in the world. When an entire society embraces a new technology, it’s very difficult to even raise questions about it without appearing to be an imbecile. Technology which begins as if to help those with special needs might eventually overturn our entire notion of what a society it.

Artistic/Thought Value: B+
Here’s where this movie thrives because, like any good sci-fi, it doesn’t merely show you a world which extrapolates our current trends out to a shocking degree but also invites you to really consider what implications those trends have for us then and now. Also, whatever combination of makeup, cinematography, and acting they used to make the surrogates look just fake enough that we knew they weren’t real humans was excellent.

Discussion Questions:
~Do you think the development of surrogates would eliminate crime? If everyone had the ability to commit a crime through another body without personal risk, would there be fewer or more crimes like theft? If you knew that violence wasn’t actually hurting a person, would you be more or less likely to engage in it? Would the robust revulsion healthy people feel against hurting real people be undermined by not encountering them regularly?
~What sort of rules or ethics do you think God has for our behavior in virtual worlds and through computer avatars?
~What do you think of the idea that this movie is showing us what our current reality is in terms of the relationship of our souls to our bodies being like the relationship of the operators in the movie to their surrogates? What connection is there between the idea of having a deceptively attractive surrogate for a truly ugly, old, or unhealthy person and the idea that people with ugly souls often still have gorgeous bodies? If you were in charge of regulating this imaginary society, would you require all surrogates to look like their operators? Do you ever wish you could see the shape of people’s souls rather than just their bodies? What purpose do you think God might have had for hiding such knowledge from casual view?
~If you had a chance to be yourself or someone else, what would you choose? In this society, would such integrity become a sort of moral virtue?
~Do you think that the surrogate culture would eventually lead people to not care about appearance so much since anyone can have anything they want or to care about it more for the same reason? Do you think this idea would be at least initially seen as most appealing for women? What implications does this movie have for current practices such as elective cosmetic surgery? Why is this industry so heavily oriented toward women?
~How likely is it that people would only choose to use avatars with human shapes? What sort of enhancements or attachments might be useful?
~Because of the way the movie explains the history of surrogate development, is this movie also sending a warning about the dangers of something like embryonic stem cell research?
~What do you make of the people who protest against the surrogates and isolate themselves from that world? Would you choose to be with them?
~When a technology is adopted by everyone, why is it so hard to raise questions about it? Can you think of some current technologies that would be virtually impossible to raise serious questions about for precisely this reason? Which ones are you so invested in that you are unwilling to consider such critiques?
~In a world like this, would our definition of heroism and courage change? Would military personnel and police still be heroes?
~How strong of a push would there be in this society to make all surrogates have equal capabilities as a way of achieving true equality among people?
~What would you have done at the end?
Overall Grade: B
It’s basically good sci-fi with excellent things to contemplate.

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