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October 11, 2009

‘Surrogates’ raises issues of humanity

“Unplug yourselves. ... This is how God made you. We’re not meant to experience life through a machine.” Thus opens “Surrogates,” an intriguing, inventive, satisfying, futuristic thriller, set in a time when people don’t come out of their homes anymore, but live through their good-looking, reallife avatars or “surrogates.” Surrogates are robots that are so life-like it’s hard to tell them from their “operators,” unless the operators choose “surrogates” very different from themselves, much like people today creating divergent online personas.

“Surrogates” repeats elements from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Blade Runner,” “District 9,” and “Wall-E,” but is unique in that it is about real humans hooked up to super-sophisticated VR (virtual reality). Everyone uses surrogates except a rag-tag band of resisters who live on a reservation, led by “The Prophet.”

We follow FBI agent Tom Greer (the well-cast Bruce Willis) on the trail of a brand-new kind of crime: two operators died when their surrogates got destroyed. But this is not supposed to be possible. Something is going radically wrong.

Amidst crime-solving and existential questions about what it means to be human, there is a moving love story between Tom and his wife, who are both grieving the loss of their young son. Tom is rethinking his use of a surrogate while his wife is using hers to escape from life, and even from Tom. She says of her “surry”: “This is who I am now.” This makes you think of those of us who are holed up in homes and offices, addicted to an online existence, and perhaps acquiring a blurred sense of our own identity.

In “Surrogates,” bathrobed operators look pale and sickly. These real humans are disparagingly called meatbags (by operators speaking through surrogates. It’s chilling to watch the middle-aged, vulnerable Tom out on the streets among the young, gorgeous, steely, powerful, slightly mechanical surrogates, and watch how they treat him (air of disdain).

Are surrogates a future possibility? In the film, surrogates are also used for war — something the U.S. military is already working on (we have drone planes bombing in Pakistan, robots that approach and diffuse bombs and potential recruits training on video games such as “America’s Army”).

“Surrogates” is a very smart movie with sharp dialogue and superb acting. It made me think of how pockets of people today are choosing to resist the online life in its infancy. What does the future hold?