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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Musing Pictures: Surrogates

I was fortunate to catch an early screening of Jonathan Mostow's "Surrogates" late last week. I had heard very little about the film, and as such, I could see it with a rare, open mind. The film plays on ideas established early in film's history: People are not necessarily who they appear to be -- all the more so when technology paints their mask. This classical sci-fi concept comes up in Fritz Lang's classic, "Metropolis", a German silent film from 1927. In "Metropolis", an inventor (C.A. Rotwang, played by Gustav Frolich, perhaps the original mad scientist) creates a robot in the image of a beautiful woman (Maria, Brigitte Helm). Maria is to be a sort of savior to the masses, but her doppelganger is meant to bring about their demise. The idea is very deeply cinematic -- in film, actors pretend to be other characters, and we accept the conceit, especially if it is done particularly well. Since we accept the conceit, we can believe that the characters in the film are justifiably fooled by similar imitations. After all, if we fault them for not seeing the truth behind a character's mask, we must also fault ourselves for seeing the characters and not the actors.

In a film that borrows heavily from "Metropolis", "Blade Runner" (1982, Ridley Scott) explores similar themes. Here, though, the imitation-humans are not designed to be re-creations of living people. On the contrary, they are so life-like, it is as if they have personalities and identities of their own. Where Fritz Lang's film is about the differences between the robotic/technological and the human/organic, Scott's film is precisely opposite -- it is about how inhuman humans can be, and about how much our technology can define our very humanity. In Scott's film, there are no clear distinctions between human and humanoid. Even within the film, characters have a hard time distinguishing between robotic and real. The effect works, because we can't make the distinction, either. After all, the characters are played by real people, regardless of the character's internal mechanisms.

To re-frame this: In "Metropolis", we see a good (human) and an evil (robot) version of the same character. We know the difference between the two because they behave differently, although their appearance is the same.
In "Blade Runner" we see human humans and robotic humans, and we can not tell the difference, which is precisely the point.
That brings us to "Surrogates", where real people control robotic versions of themselves, through which they experience life. Much like in "Blade Runner", no one is to be trusted -- people's 'surrogates' are not necessarily identical to the controllers themselves. This is established early on, when a beautiful woman turns out to be a robot controlled by an obese man. Whereas in "Blade Runner", the primary question to a character is "what are you?", "Surrogates" begs the question, "Who are you?" It's a "Mission: Impossible" scenario that includes and make suspect the identity of almost everybody.

Ultimately, all of these are attempts to explore what makes us human. Is our humanity our compassion ("Metropolis"), our substance ("Blade Runner"), our persona ("Surrogates")? As narrative devices, these all work because of the way we see movies. We see characters as people -- we see their performances, and extrapolate from them entire lives, backgrounds, personalities. When a film moves us, it is because we have been able to recognize humanity in the pattern of flashing lights and sounds that have danced before us. That is part of what makes movies so powerful: through film, we can be made to recognize reality on the surface of a screen.

-AzS

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