Monday, October 5, 2009

[Film] Surrogates

I had the pleasure of seeing Surrogates this weekend. It would have been a pleasure regardless of whether the movie was good or not, since my wife and I were on one of the precious few kid-free dates we take each year. Though the wretched Burn After Reading proved that even the joy of a date can be dimmed by a truly atrocious movie.

I kept a spreadsheet this year of all the movies being released that I’d like to see at some point. Most were marked for rental from Netflix, but a select few had an X in the “theatre” column. They included Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Star Trek, and The Watchmen. And Surrogates. I’ve been pumped to see this movie all year and was really, really looking forward to it. I had hoped to add it to my selection of “sci-fi techno-dystopias,” which includes I, Robot, 6th Day, Minority Report, Logan’s Run, Demolition Man and a handful of others.

The upshot is that Surrogates is a decent movie. It’s in the neighborhood of 3/5 stars, I’d say. It wasn’t bad and didn’t leave me feeling like I’d wasted 90 minutes watching it. But in implementing its fictional technology, it both raised quite a few thought-provoking issues and also failed to fully address the impact its core technology would need to have on society. I spent a good chunk of the evening thinking about the “surrogates” scenario, probably much to my wife’s dismay as I rambled on about social and economic implications. The culmination of my ruminations follows. Beware, spoilers ensue.

The quick version of the premise is that the Versalife Corporation has developed mindless android bodies that can be remotely controlled by a user plugged into a special chair some significant distance away. The user, in turn, completely experiences every sensation the robotic surrogate encounters, allowing them to “live” vicariously through their mechanical counterpart. Moreover, their surrogates are better versions of themselves. They can look the same as the user, but “better,” looking younger, more attractive, more athletic, etc. They can even look completely different if the user would prefer a different ethnos or even a different gender. The surrogates can be stronger, infinitely more agile, and their senses can even be enhanced with low-light vision and other upgrades. In the world of Surrogates, absolutely no one goes outside in their natural human form. They interact with the world exclusively through their surrogates, spending their real lives plugged into their chairs in their pajamas or sweat pants. And the “paradise” of Surrogates is threatened in only two ways: first, there are fanatical surrogate-haters who consider their use to be abominations and have chosen to live in self-imposed reservations where surrogates are prohibited. Second, a weapon has been developed that not only destroys any nearby surrogates, but which kills their users at the same time. The story involves the attempt to unravel the complex mystery of who made that weapon, who has it, and why.

One concept introduced in the movie is that the economy has flourished as some 98% of the world adopted the use of the cheap and available surrogates. If you do the math, that means that all but 120,000,000 men, women and children could afford and chose to use surrogates. That seems a bit high to me, particularly since the film indicated that surrogates for children were a relatively new invention (and it certainly begs, but does not address, the question of what would happen to a child health-wise if they spent all their growth-years strapped into a bed instead of running around stressing their bones and muscles). But leaving aside for a moment the question of how 5.8 billion people could actually afford surrogates when poverty is so high in places like India and Africa (and parts of the US and Mexico, to select a couple of places closer to home), there was no explanation for why the world economy should automatically improve just because everybody is prettier. I can see where the violent crime rate might drop to nearly nothing, but there’s no logical reason I can think of why people wouldn’t still want for power, position, and luxuries that can only be attained through personal wealth and influence, both of which are sometimes arrived at through nefarious means.

Moreover, the new surrogate-based economy might create new markets for robot manufacture, sales, upgrades and repairs, but the movie strongly implied (though I disagree, see below) that all human-service industries would entirely disappear as people stopped going out to restaurants, coffee shops, nail salons, tanning parlors, or anyplace else that catered to live humans only. So anybody employed in those markets, or in industries that served the providers of those services, would have been put out of work in a surrogate-based society. I humbly propose that such a society would have no better an economy than currently exists, probably worse.

But to cycle back around to the point I mentioned above, the movie made it pretty clear that nobody ever left their homes in “non-surrogate” form, anymore. Beyond that, it was supposed to be obvious that the main character’s wife was appalled by the sight of her husband, Bruce Willis, in the flesh. I think we were meant to conclude that the “fashion” of surrogates as sleek, sculpted, perfect people had pretty dramatically changed the idea of beauty such that no regular person could ever measure up. As such, all contact was strictly between surrogates. But that suggests a pretty serious question about procreation, doesn’t it? I mean, unless everybody goes the in vitro route (another drain on their wallets that’s not supported by economics in such a society), at some point a couple needs to come together and get naked if they’re going to make little kids. And procreation is just for starters.

I actually think that it would still be pretty common for people to walk around in the flesh, even with the broad availability of surrogates. For instance, we never see surrogates ingest anything in the movie, which I think implies that they can’t or don’t do so. But people enjoy eating – it’s pleasurable as well as functional. As such, I think people would still want to eat, which means either going out to a restaurant in person or having the surrogate bring home take-out. Bam, restaurants are back in business. Plus, to touch on the courtship routine again, it seems to me that some people, perhaps many people, would choose to spend time together in the flesh prior to engaging in procreation-focused intercourse. Sure, you surrogates may have hung from the bedroom trapeze on a few occasions, but if you’re going to do it the old-fashioned way, at least some couples are going to want to spend a little time together in the flesh first.

But there are other, more basic reasons why people would be out wandering around. The movie showed charging stations all over, including sidewalks, lobbies and even on the subway. But I don’t think people would want to just hang out in their chairs while their surrogates recharged. Moreover, sitting in a chair all the time isn’t likely to be very tiring even if you’re hooked into a sensor net and control system, so it seems as if people would have a fair bit of energy when their surrogates were getting juiced. But beyond that, who wants to sit on the subway if they don’t have to? Some of the surrogates show on the train were, indeed, shut right down. If the surrogate has a 40-minute subway-ride, isn’t it likely that their user would be inclined to head outside for some fresh air at least occasionally?

Which brings me to my next point – mass transportation. Surrogates wouldn’t need to travel in comfort, and I think the film overlooked that in a major way. You don’t need to physically sit in traffic in a car if you’re just a surrogate going into the office. It seems far more likely that surrogates would be stacked like cord-wood or otherwise shuttled around and “delivered” from place-to-place while their users slept, ate, watched TV, went jogging or otherwise fooled around in various ways. I mean, that’s what people hate about commuting, right? It’s not the fact that the trip itself is tedious and boring, it’s also the fact that they’re stuck with no alternative but to sit through it. If people were offered any way to avoid that tedium, I think they’d take it in a heartbeat and suddenly you’d have a new industry springing up that would dramatically change how “people,” or in this case surrogates, got around.

Incidentally, this never came up in the film, but I believe that air travel would change pretty dramatically in the world of surrogates as well. I’m not sure which model would prove more effective, but the days of passenger jets would almost have to come to an end. Again, you don’t need to sit in a cramped seat reading the in-flight magazine anymore. You simply need to have your surrogate shipped to your destination, while you unplug and go about your business. Once it arrives, you plug back in and off you go. Or, perhaps you would order a “rental” surrogate, have it configured to match your regular surrogate’s specifications, and at the appointed time simply take control of that one while your own sat in its charger for a few hours or days. There was some rigmarole in the film about how it was illegal to use a surrogate that wasn’t specifically registered to you, but then again it seemed to be ridiculously easy to take control of somebody else’s surrogate, too, so that didn’t seem to be a terribly effective law. As such, it might well not exist in an alternate surrogate society existing outside the confines of this particular film.

Next, I think the film leads one to wonder about the Versalife corporation. Not so much why such a company would help to develop a weapon that could completely destroy its core product and anybody who was using it at the time. Though I do find that to be one of the film’s more major flaws. But rather how such a company could defy all of the common principles of manufacturing by somehow producing a highly-complex, durable good product and yet making it so affordable that 98% of the world could adopt it. And, incidentally, the product seemed to have an almost unnaturally-high degree of reliability despite the advanced technology involved. And not only was the base model affordable to all, but presumably the core upgrades (allowing for all of the senses to be transmitted, not just sight and sound) weren’t too expensive or the adoption-rate wouldn’t likely be as high. But we also see a number of surrogates severely damaged in the movie and nobody seems to get worked up about it in the same way they would if somebody keyed their car. Again, that suggests a product that’s almost laughably cheap to repair or replace. But how can Versalife possibly cover the raw materials necessary to produce such a complex piece of technology, let alone recoup the value of their research and development, legal costs, marketing, administrative overhead, and so on, if their core product is so inexpensive that it’s affordable to the poorest of the poor around the world? Beyond a mention during the opening montage that “it’s cheap enough for everyone,” the film did a piss-poor job of answering that question.

But I think the biggest stretch in the film had to do with the technology, itself. In retrospect, I think it was a mistake to set the film in “present day,” with the premise that the technology for surrogates had been developed within the last 10-15 years and was available more-or-less today. Given how unreliable current technology tends to be, plus the long lead-times in truly revolutionary technical achievements (see my article on why we’ve failed to achieve jetpacks and rocketships to Mars), the surrogate technology in the film simply requires too much suspension of disbelief for the present day. What’s more, short of the production costs involved, I didn’t see any reason in the movie why it couldn’t have been set fifty or a hundred years from now. Certainly it would have made everything more believable. Consider the wireless network required to handle the tremendous amounts of data involved in millions of surrogates all sending and receiving both sensory data (audio, video, smell, touch and kinesthetic movement) and control inputs in real time between them and their user’s chairs. Consider the sensors needed to accurately detect and send touch and kinesthetic feedback to the user AS IT HAPPENS. Consider the system of motors, hydraulics, electronics and fluidics necessary to accurately mimic all aspects of human movement, physiology and social interaction, including everything from the facial muscles involved in portraying emotion to the complex genital symphony of sexual intercourse. And yet how often does my wife’s iPod just suddenly decide to tell me to go to hell for no apparent reason? How often am I innocently playing a game on my PC, only to have the whole thing suddenly lock hard and demand a physical reboot? And I’m supposed to plug a PC and an iPod into a walking, talking robot and then let it go drive a car? Implausible at best.

The film also suffered from the usual issues whenever technology is involved – characters tapping madly on a keyboard and managing to instantly make their computer terminal find, select and copy all of the “important” files they’re looking for. It suffered also at the end when entering a simple 3-password command into one computer automatically insulated all the worlds’ surrogates from the effects of the super-weapon that the main character spent the whole movie tracking down. The PC was already set to do that? It just needed the guy who had spent the whole movie SITTING AT IT to type in the passwords, which he KNEW?? And yet this weapon was somehow a big deal? Yeah, the ending didn’t bear much thinking about, nor how easy it was to impersonate somebody else by taking control of their surrogate, nor how easy it was for a remote operator to take control of somebody else’s surrogate without even being in their chair, yet in spite of that how easy it was to defeat security that only checked for the identity of the surrogate, not the user.

So you might conclude that I didn’t like Surrogates. And, given its many flaws, I probably shouldn’t have. But I am a sucker for Bruce Willis as far back as Moonlighting. And, ultimately, I have to give kudos to any movie as thought-provoking as Surrogates, even if the most common thought I had was along the lines of “Hey, what about…” It was fun to watch, had a decent mix of techno-sci-fi, action, and mystery, and all of the production values were fine. I think they missed a huge opportunity by not showing how the sorts of enhanced leaps and flips used by the main characters’ surrogates would have dramatically changed sports like football, and I certainly found a wide array of nits to pick about the core technology, but I’d still recommend Surrogates for anybody who isn’t inclined to get worked into a froth if the science behind their sci-fi isn’t entirely bullet-proof.

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