Willis rediscovers his humanity

2009-11-16 00:00

FEMINIST academic Donna Haraway espoused a theory about the liberatory possibilities of new technologies where machines and humans combine as cyborgs. Certainly the utopian ideal exists for robotic surrogates or avatars to complement humanity, but the essential philosophical question always boils down to what it is to be human and how we deal with issues of identity. Surrogates tackles this question head on in the form of a sci-fi police procedural where the protagonist is forced to confront a series of murders in a seemingly perfect world. As you may assume, the strength of this film lies in its philosophical musings as opposed to its generic structure, and to his credit director Jonathan Mostow has resisted the temptation of spectacle in favour of a steadfastly human perspective.

Thematically Surrogates invites comparisons with films such as Blade Runner, The Stepford Wives and Minority Report. In most cases the settings for these films are likely to consume much of the director’s attention. Expository detail is important for the sci-fi fans and an opiate for the rest of us. Ephemeral pleasures aside, many of these films articulate their stories from the perspective of the other. We are invited, as in Blade Runner , to empathise with replicants and often there is a distancing effect emotionally. The result for us as an audience is alienation or anomie, one of science fiction’s endgames for humanity. Surrogates proposes an alternative not based on artificial humans but rather a hybrid form of man and machine where robots are the avatars of the human mind. Rather than revelling in the marvel of technology, Surrogates suggests that it is merely masking our fundamental flaws.

The plot involves an investigator on the trail of a killer who is offing surrogates and their human controllers.

In the course of the investigation, Bruce Willis’s avatar is destroyed and he is forced to engage with the real world that is ironically superficial. His wife, physically and emotionally scarred in an accident, hides behind her Stepford surrogate and Willis has to come to terms with his own humanity before he can unravel the identity of the killer.

Mostow’s pared-down visual style resonates with the narrative and is likely to disappoint audiences looking for whizz-bang eye candy. Willis, with his ageing hangdog persona, brings an everyday authenticity to the film. This direction is refreshing in a genre that plies its trade in the fantastic. Sadly for those of us not interested in films that pose intriguing questions about contemporary life, this film is likely to pass unnoticed.

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