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'Surrogates': Not quite the real thing

“We're not meant to experience the world through a machine.”

--The Prophet, Surrogates

Last weekend, my husband and I saw Surrogates, a sci-fi film set a few decades in the future where the vast majority of people live virtually through near-perfect android substitutes called “surrogates” and never leave their homes. Crime and death rates are at all time lows, but FBI agent Harvey Greer (Bruce Willis) finds himself investigating the destruction of two surrogates and the death of their operators. While I enjoyed the film and would even recommend it, I have to admit I had hoped for more.

On the surface, it seems to have the same basic plot as the graphic novel by Robert Venditti from which the film is adapted (and which I thoroughly enjoyed), but I found that the changes the film makes from the original story result in a significant loss of depth and impact of the relevant themes the story explores. While the film still touches on a number of these themes (some of which bring God-talk into open spaces), as Peter Chattaway puts it in his review at Christianity Today, “the result is a movie that is worth a look but could have been much more.”

(Warning: Major spoilers and plot twists for the graphic novel and the film ahead. Sorry, I couldn’t see a way to discuss these points without touching on major plot points and twists in either story. For much less spoilerish takes on the film, see Chattaway's review above or any others of the many reviews out there.)

Of the more significant changes, the film completely removes the graphic novel’s character of Steeplejack, whom we later discover is a surrogate operated by Dr. Lionel Canter (who invented the surrogate technology), and changes the motivations for Canter’s desire and actions to destroy surrogates. Early in the graphic novel, Steeplejack attacks two random surrogates by physically touching them with and releasing energy from his hand, which destroys the surrogates but leaves the operators alive. In the film, however, it is a human who has been hired and given a weapon by the corporation making surrogates to assassinate Dr. Canter because of his opposition to surrogate use—and instead of simply frying the surrogates, the weapon also kills the operators. In the film, the corporation and the assassin thought they killing Dr. Canter but the doctor’s son, who unknown to them was using the surrogate, is killed instead.

It is this act in the film that actually initiates Dr. Canter’s actions to destroy all surrogates—and he’s motivated by revenge rather than a well-thought-out plan born out of regret, dissatisfaction and perhaps misguided but heart-felt desire to do what’s best for mankind in the novel. As a result, the graphic novel’s themes and exploration of personal responsibility and the motives we operate from and acts we undertake (including self-sacrifice) as we search for redemption and struggle to do what is best for each other are dulled. The film continues the exploration of these themes to some extent through Greer, but the graphic novel’s exploration of these themes from the perspectives of both Dr. Canter and Greer (as well as The Prophet) adds a complexity and depth to the novel that the film lacks.

And then there’s that significant change regarding the character of The Prophet, whom we discover is a tool of Dr. Canter in the film and thus is effectively reduced to a caricature rather than the very human, formidable, true-believer and challenging figure of the novel (see my musings on the graphic novel for more on this). As a result, the religious themes, challenges and questions present in the novel are much shallower in the film. In fact, they are rather nonexistent.

And the change the film makes to the ending of the graphic novel regarding Greer’s wife—while definitely happier than the novel—detracts from the seriousness, weight and consequences the story raises regarding our dependence on technology and our relationship with it.

But, to be honest, I did enjoy the film. It is well paced and the suspense is good, as are the special effects for the most part—and it does have its moments. In addition to the ones Chattaway touches on in his review, I thought the image of Greer’s surrogate hanging in a crucifix position is a good symbol of the agent’s freedom and re-birth into a new life (as, among other things, the cross enacts and symbolizes for us). And I appreciated, like Chattaway, Greer’s emotional reaction to a group of boys playing baseball inside the Dred reservation (where most technology is banned); it is a poignant moment in his reconnection not only with the people and world around him but also to his growing acceptance of his sense of loss from the death of his son. And Greer’s anxiety at having to experience the world first hand after his surrogate is destroyed was interesting and thought-provoking. When we spend so much time communicating with others through technology, the onslaught of the natural world to our senses and the complexity of real world relationships can be overwhelming. And, as Chattaway also points out, Greer’s physical vulnerability in acting without a surrogate accentuates the value of life that we appreciate all the more when we realize how fragile it is.

So, even though the film’s intent to challenge us with the novel's themes and to consider our own relationship with and use of technology isn’t as effective as it could have been, it still presents us with a chance (like the graphic novel) to consider our own involvement with virtual reality and technologies—from MMORPGs to blogs, forums and boards where we can create our own identities and personas—that allow us to communicate and interact without leaving our homes. How do these kinds of technologies change the way we relate to each other? To the world around us? Is there something lost? What? And is whatever we gain with our use (and, yes, abuse) of that technology worth the sacrifice of whatever we lose? The surrogates in both the film and novel range in sophistication and cost—is there a relationship between technology and wealth? How does that affect the “have-nots”? And what about the claim that surrogates reduce our risks—do we buy into the illusion that wealth and technology can protect us from the reality of death, suffering and darkness?

These are all good questions that we would do well to explore—I just wish we could be asking them in the context of a story closer to that of the graphic novel than the adaptation we have in Surrogates.

(Images: Surrogates poster and images, Touchstone)