By Alline Cormier
This article contains spoilers.
Gen-Xers, myself included, grew up without cellphones and even, to a large extent, personal computers. A significant part of our childhood was spent playing outside—unplugged. I have fond summer vacation memories of leaving the house right after breakfast every day to run around the neighborhood with my cousins and friends, returning home only briefly for meals. After supper, we would play Kick the Can until dark—or until the parents called us back in, not on cellphones but shouting from porch steps.
Nowadays, many of us, irrespective of the generation we belong to, spend hours of every day “plugged in” to our electronic devices. Over the last two decades, we have increasingly left the natural world, effectively living a significant part of our lives online (or staring at screens).
In Surrogates, an action sci-fi set in the not-so-distant future starring Bruce Willis, 98% of humans do not leave their homes; going outside to interact with the world is left to their remote-controlled android (the robotic “surrogates”), which look like a more attractive version of themselves. At the same time, they remain safely indoors, plugged into “sim chairs.” Unlike some futuristic films, Surrogates does not normalize synthetic humans or encourage viewers to embrace them. Instead, it encourages us to reject synthetic humans, live unplugged, and embrace our vulnerable humanity. Given the ever-decreasing amount of time we spend unplugged, as well as the push by some to normalize body dissociation and transhumanism, it may be interesting to take a closer look at Surrogates.
Released in 2009, the Jonathan Mostow-directed film made over US$119 million at the worldwide box office. The screenplay by Michael Ferris and John Brancato is based on a graphic novel series by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele called The Surrogates. The film explores a future in which we are almost entirely disconnected from the natural world, each other, and ourselves. In this future, just about everyone owns a surrogate—and most of the feminized surrogates resemble Barbies, especially Maggie, the protagonist’s wife.
Set in Boston, Massachusetts, Surrogates follows a middle-aged FBI agent named Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) and his partner, Jennifer Peters (Radha Mitchell), as their search for a murderer leads to a search for a weapon capable of killing the human operators of the robot surrogates simply by shooting the robots. The murder victim is the son of inventor Dr. Lionel Canter (James Cromwell), dubbed the “father of surrogacy” as he is one of the founders of VSI, the surrogate industry’s leading manufacturer. Canter’s son’s death is especially alarming as the whole point of robot surrogates is to protect their human operators from harm by eliminating the risk of injury—it shouldn’t be fatal to use them. Before the weapon is used to kill more humans, Greer and Peters must find it (the weapon is a device that disables the surrogates with a virus that defeats the built-in fail-safes, killing the human operators via signals).
Surrogates, frame capture (Peters and Greer)
Though most people have surrogates in this future, a minority opposes them, refusing to live through surrogates. These rebels stick to their territories (surrogate-free zones) and do not mingle with surrogates. The rebels are led by the Human Coalition leader, named The Prophet (Ving Rhames). In Boston, this zone is called the Dread Reservation, and inside it graffiti reads: “Unplug yourself!” Giant banners featuring The Prophet say LIVE. I found it interesting that the people who oppose synthetic humans live in poverty. In contrast, those who go along with surrogacy and the way of life promoted by the tech industry get to live in affluence. Only compliance is materially rewarded.
Bruce Willis’ character, Greer, is introduced through his younger-looking robot surrogate, which, unlike its operator, has a full head of hair. I figure if Beach Ken Dolls had a dad, this is what it would look like. However, early on, Greer loses his surrogate—it is destroyed by rebels—and is forced from this point on to interact with the outside world as his vulnerable human self, not via his remote-controlled android.
Even before the loss of his surrogate, we see Greer attempting to connect with his wife, Maggie (Rosamund Pike), a disfigured, very depressed, heavily medicated woman who is too scared to leave her home. It seems she never leaves her bedroom, where her sim chair is located, preferring to let her surrogate interact with her husband, even in their apartment and despite his efforts to spend time with her. Just as the Greers’ sim chairs are in separate rooms, they grieve their young son, who died in a car accident before the story begins, separately. She shuts him out; he yearns for a connection and physical contact with her. However, even Maggie’s surrogate keeps him at arm’s length. Because viewers are meant to sympathize first and foremost with Greer, his sadness over the absence of connection in his marriage shows us what the filmmakers consider a significant disadvantage of synthetic humans.
Surrogates, frame capture (Maggie and Greer)
The movie opens with The Prophet urging people to unplug from their chairs. He adds: “We’re not meant to experience the world through machines… Those machines walking around out there? They’re a lie. You have been sold a lie.” In a later scene, The Prophet says to a crowd at a funeral on the Dread Reservation, “You can try to escape by living through a puppet, through a machine. But, deep down inside, you know you’re living a lie.”
In two scenes, the filmmakers make it clear that people’s use of surrogates allows them to lie to others about themselves concerning significant facts easily. Although this can be advantageous to the operator, the filmmakers also demonstrate how this constitutes a drawback. In the first of these scenes, viewers discover, along with agents Greer and Peters, that the human operator behind the surrogate Canter’s son was making out with outside the nightclub is not a gorgeous young woman with long blond hair but an overweight, bald man. I thought this inclusion was a nice touch, given the men in real life who have pornified female avatars for online interactions with others.
In the second scene, Greer says to the beautiful, young, feminized lawyer surrogate he sits with: “Honey, I don’t know what you are. For all I know, you could be some big fat dude sitting in a sim chair with his dick hanging out.” Usually, I’m not overly fond of Willis’ characters’ vulgarity and four-letter word vocabulary, but here I didn’t mind how he exposed the truth about some men’s online behavior.
Surrogates, frame capture (Greer, Peters, and a dead human operator in a sim chair)
Shortly after the movie’s halfway mark, Greer rejects Maggie’s surrogate, calling it a “thing” and telling it he wants his wife, the woman, in her room. In the end, this FBI agent—not the rebels—is the one who destroys all the surrogates once all the human operators have been safely unplugged. He is reunited with Maggie in their dead son’s room and holds her in his arms.
We eventually discover that the anti-surrogacy movement was funded with millions of dollars by the inventor of the surrogates himself, Dr. Lionel Canter, who had a change of heart about humans’ use of surrogates. Canter says to Greer, “Surrogacy is a perversion. It’s an addiction.”
By depicting the surrogates’ inventor and the story’s hero rejecting surrogates and desiring their destruction, the filmmakers make their position on synthetic humans plain. Unlike Blade Runner 2049—which I previously analyzed here—a film that normalizes synthetic humans, thereby paving the way for the biotech industry’s post-humanism, Surrogates rejects synthetic humans and encourages us to live unplugged.
Finally, and in consideration of female viewers, it is worth noting that Surrogates has little to offer them, beginning with the small number of significant female characters. It boasts just two: Peters and Maggie, one of which is killed off twice. Indeed, a man breaks into Peters’ house and shoots her dead before hijacking her surrogate, and later a different man shoots her surrogate in the head. In this second murder scene for Peters, we see the actress shot and fall to the floor. Moreover, soon afterward we see Maggie’s surrogate lying “dead” on the floor of her workplace, eyes open. Even though we know this is an android—not a human—I still found it disturbing to see Rosamund Pike lying dead on the floor like this; there isn’t much difference between the way she looks here and the way we’ve seen her in many other movies—Gone Girls, Made in Dagenham, and Pride & Prejudice to name just a few.
Surrogates, frame capture (Maggie’s “dead” surrogate)
Surrogates fails female viewers in other ways, including the following. It barely passes the Bechdel test (a test that serves as an indicator of the active presence of women in movies); just one of the five very brief exchanges between female characters passes. There is next to no congeniality between the female characters. Double standards abound, beginning with men's and women’s costumes. Peters wears low-cut tops and high heels, whereas Greer is buttoned up and wears sensible shoes. Many female extras are scantily clad. For example, the feminized surrogate that makes out with Canter’s son—dressed in a tuxedo—just after “meeting” him on the dance floor of a nightclub, wears a bikini-like outfit.
Additionally, the sexist age gap is maintained: Pike, Willis’ screen wife, is an actress 24 years his junior. The other woman he is paired with, too, is much younger. He is 18 years older than the actress (Mitchell) who plays his FBI partner, Jennifer Peters.
Though Surrogates offers little to female viewers, it’s good to know that it’s out there, promoting the rejection of synthetic humans, lives led “plugged in,” and “perfect,” plasticized versions of ourselves. We could do worse than Hollywood feature films starring A-list actors that encourage people to live authentic lives and spend time outside, not to mention reminding us that big tech can sell us lies.
Alline Cormier is a Canadian film analyst. This year her articles on women in film/TV have been published in The 11th Hour, Women Making Films (India), Feminist Current, 4W, and Gender Dissent. She is currently seeking a publisher for her film guide for women. Her website is found at sexualizationofwomen.com, and she tweets @ACPicks2. PayPal: PayPal.Me/AllineCormier