Friday, February 05, 2010

Surrogate - Film

Yes, I'm behind in my film watching. In fact, last night was the first chance I had to watch Zombieland and Surrogate. It seems that Zombieland has had plenty of commentaries - not surprisingly. I certainly enjoyed the film, but I didn't think it was as clever as Shaun of the Dead. And luckily for me, there are some common themes in Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead and Surrogate. Lucky because it gives me an easy segue from zombie films to "almost" zombie films.

Let me explain that last remark. Or maybe the entire paragraph. Quite often, zombie fiction/films deal with the alienation of humanity. Shaun, in Shaun of the Dead was so alienated that he didn't notice the difference between a living and undead world - until it was close enough to bite him. Similarly, Zombieland followed the "journey" plot, taking the narrator from the living world (isolated from humanity) to the zombie world, where he finally completes his journey of growth, and finds the family for which he's been searching (no longer alienated). In Surrogate, most of humanity use avatars (robots) to live their daily lives. They go to work in them, entertain in them, vacation in them, and pretty much do everything else you can imagine in them. Hidden in those "control beds" where humans dwell while operating their surrogates is something of a "zombie." But mostly, they are alienated from each other - just as in the two zombie films mentioned above.

Those of you who are familiar with Marxist literary analysis have already picked up on the keyword "alienated." Those who are just familiar with Marx are probably thinking: Is this guy a Communist? I'm a writer, therefore, I'm a Capitalist - is it possible to be anything else in the current world? What I'm saying is I'm not speaking about Communism. I'm speaking about alienation - the removal ourselves from the daily human existence. Yes, Karl Marx feared Capitalism caused this, and well it does. As a result, the theme appears in our fiction (intentionally or not). For example, to be alienated from labor is to work for a corporation, but being nothing more than a cog in a greater mechanism. To borrow from Marx's example: If I make shoes for a company, the company name goes on the shoe. That is very different from being the owner of a shoe shop, where people know me for making shoes. When I own the shop and make the shoes, I'm not alienated from what I do for a living.

So back to the film Surrogate. It is set in a world where most everyone uses robots to travel about the world, and to work. They view and sense through the robots, but their real bodies are in "VR" beds. Needless to say, the robots are physically attractive, creating a world of supermodels. Meanwhile, the humans look shabby and sickly - they don't get out much. Or, in other terms, they exist in near complete alienation.

This was something I didn't expect from the film. And I'm not sure it was the intention of the film. Isolation and vanity are clearly themes it deals with, but as a side effect alienation comes into play as it produces an artificial superstructure - a false world in which humans have their surrogate machines do the living for them. The end result is that there is no "real " living going on in the film. Husbands and wives remain locked behind doors, while their surrogates interact with each other. This makes for a clever analogy for the Internet, texting, VR, and most trends in our modern world where personal interaction can be "phoned in" from a device.

With all of that said, this is not a new idea. It has been told in many different tales many times. However, without revealing the end of the film, I will say it was strikingly similar to a short story by John Shirley titled, "Techotriptych." In fact, it was so similar in concept and execution that I briefly wondered if John wrote the screenplay for Surrogate (he is a screenplay writer). It turns out not to be wasn't the case. And if you're wondering, John Shirley's tale deals with similar themes. He'd have to comment about the alienation aspect. Although, intended or not, it is embedded in his story as it is in Surrogate and Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland because alienation is a part of Western Culture. And I think, for me, that is part of the appeal of these films and short story. They touch upon a common theme, an aspect of the viewer's (and reader's) life.

Hopefully, I've not revealed too much about the film to spoil anything, but offered enough incentive to watch Surrogate. And if you haven't seen the other films mentioned, give them a shot. The same goes for John Shirley's tale. It is powerful and makes no apologies, but that is what rattles the reader into reconsidering the world in which he or she lives.


Rick said...

I haven't actually seen any of these movies, as you've no doubt guessed, but I think I'll go see them over the next few weeks to see if I can learn something.

Re your point about alienation and Marx, I've brought in, particularly after Perestroika, many Russian technical workers into the US for joint venture work, and actually had several living in my house for six months and entertained their visiting guests. What came out via many discussions was that under communism they felt alienated by a system that refused to treat them as individuals, thus robbing them of their identity and alienating them from not only their work, but from themselves as well.

I'm particularly anxious to see "Surrogate" because it seems to describe where interactivity is taking us. A pliable, entertained mob controlled by groupthink and the need to be someone else.

Akasha Savage. said...

I absolutely love Shaun Of The Dead, it's one of my all time favourites. I haven't seen the other two, I'll have to give them a go. :)

Anonymous said...

The main character in my TALES OUT OF MISKATONIC UNIVERSITY story is certainly alienated: I even use the "cog in the machine" expression in the piece!

I enjoy reading commentary like this and then realizing that such ideas have crept into my writing without my conscious intention.