Monday, October 19, 2009

Surrogates -- substituting for good story

Okay, time for a commentary that many of you have been waiting for -- my thoughts about the recent Bruce Willis movie, Surrogates.

 I've been (as you might expect) getting a lot of mail about it, so let's start with some facts.  The film is based upon a comic book by Robert Venditti that appeared some years after my novel KILN PEOPLE. 

Also worth noting, for purposes of a timeline, is the screenplay for KILN PEOPLE that was created by the great scriptor Leslie Dixon (Overboard, Mrs.Doubtfire, Pay it Forward). It circulated some years ago at Paramount Studios and far beyond, so clearly a priority sequence was well-known, by those interested in the basic idea.

But are the stories really similar?  Let's see

A detective sends a technologically-made duplicate of himself into a world where everybody makes copies in order to deal with the world risk-free.  The detective's duplicate seeks the inventor of this technology, who has become dangerously estranged from the company that he founded and who plots its downfall.

Along the way, there occurs a rare case of actual murder.  Meanwhile, in one of the zones where only real humans are allowed, fanatics rail that all this copying-addiction undermines the human soul... an so on....

Check, check check...  Ah, well, they say that Hollywood only steals if they respect you.  Sigh.

All of that might be expected to stir fumes at the back of my neck.  But I went to see the movie with an open mind, willing to give it a chance, in hopes it would at least turn out to be a great, rip-snorting sci fi adventure that (for a change) has a little originality, as well as some brains and heart. Is that really too much to ask?

At first sight, one of the similarities between KILN PEOPLE and Surrogates is something that I approve-of at a philosophical level... both stories give the "new thing" to the People -- to everybody -- and follow how this changes society.

Few sci fi films do that.  Generally, the "new thing" is hoarded in secret or monopolized by the mighty, giving you a simple - if dumb - hero vs oppressive authority plot.  Okay, so let's give Surrogates two points for breaking from that cliche.  Well, that cliche.

 Of course, whenever the People do adopt something new, wholesale, that generally leads to another hackneyed theme.  But, hold that thought.

Alas, to save money, Jonathan Mostow, the director of Surrogates chose to eliminate all futuristic aspects.  Hence, we have mind projection and puppet automatons... and everything else is left exactly as today.  Hey, I understand budget concerns.  But there are lots of cool things -- directly related to copying -- that would have cost next-to-nothing to portray...

...or, at least, he might have entertainingly (as I do) show some of the range of things that people would use copies for!  How about gladiatorial matches in souped-up bodies!  Hyper-X-sports in which no one comes back "alive"! Historical battle re-enactments, with real bullets! Expeditions to other planets, where the surrogate travels cheaply, without life-support, then wakens and lets an astronaut -- or paying customers -- take that "first step for mankind." 

The possibilities are endless, as I show in KILN PEOPLE.  But, as we'll see, this movie is not about people using self-duplication to expand the realm of the possible.

(We did catch a glimpse of some military applications.  But even that was stunningly unimaginative.  What, no soldiers manifesting as cheetahs or ogres or dragons?  Two legs are soooo slow.)

As for the vast range of ways that regular folks would use their surrogates... other than for playing at being sexy... or the opposite sex...?  Nah.  All people use this technological breakthrough  for is to look good.

Seriously, that's pretty much it. Looking good.  Period.  In fact, that self-indulgent sin propels the entire personal side of the plot.  Um... snore.

(My wife suggested an alternative that might have driven everybody to keep their human bodies indoors.  What if the air had become toxic?  One also wonders what would happen to human reproduction rates in a world where all sex is via machinery....  But, as we'll see, any probing of the details would interfere in the main purpose of Surrogates -- which is to preach a very black and white, Crichtonian morality play.)

Look, there were moments in the film that seemed marginally clever.  Some cool effects.  Even a crackle or two of snappy dialogue. Go see it, sure.

 And yet, in this, just about the only adventure/scifi film in years to NOT be based upon the sequel of a comicbook sequel, we still see both director and studio choosing to go with the knee-jerk, go-to lesson of every tiresomely cliched Hollywood flick...

... always boiling down to Michael Crichton's preachy but classic message -- "there are things mankind should never do." Pushing the ultimately poisonous line that we should always fear and loathe technology. 

That is the core message nowadays, no?  Change is always, always, always, always bad.  A lesson preached by privileged, comfortable, tech-empowered elites who have benefited fantastically from change.  Women and men who would likely screech in agony if they had to live the way any of their ancestors did, during any of the 20,000 generations of previous human existence.

Think about it. Do these Hollywood studio folks -- most of them devout Democrats -- ever wonder why our civilization is turning anti-science and giving itself over to superstition?  They wring their hands over a rising age of culture war and lost-confidence, while they are churning out relentless propaganda preaching the same tedious message -- that progress is hopeless and technology only menacing. And that the default moral and wise choice should always be Just Say No To Change.

Even worse, nearly every product they put out proclaims that the People are always stupid.

Some democrats.

Alas, in fact, that final, noxious  cliche seems to be the utter heart and core of Surrogates. The tired-old lesson that you cannot trust the masses with a burnt match, let alone the Next Thing.

In this film, absolutely everybody -- except for a few abstemious fanatics -- falls for the addictive trap of copying insatiably, neglecting their real bodies and real lives, transferring their sense of self entirely into machine versions and neglecting the flesh upon which life depends.  

Oh, sure, some people would do that, in much the same way that some now abuse alcohol.  And dealing with the fallout from this minority's stupidity might make an interesting plot.  But here's the key point. All  known addictions d not ensnare the majority -- folks who resist temptation use good judgment, exercise moderation, and manage to lead balanced, wholesome lives, despite being offered a New Thing.

But in the world of Surrogates, it is all or nothing. There are only teetotaling prude-fanatics or several billion rolling drunks.  Absolutely everybody who uses the New Thing stupidly abuses it, and so must be saved from temptation by an act of overwhelmingly self-righteous and simplistic prudity.

Here is where, fundamentally and morally, this film breaks with me and my own, earlier, take on the question: "what if we could all make copies of ourselves?"  In fact, both the film Surrogates and graphic novel seem bent on directly refuting and rejecting the premise of KILN PEOPLE... that human civilization sometimes picks up new tools, overcomes some mistakes and faces interesting problems, learns to deal with them, and moves on.   

Given Hollywood's slavish devotion to cliche -- and to portraying their fellow citizens as mindless sheep -- is it any wonder the producers chose Venditti's approach over mine?  (And let there be no mistake; Leslie Dixon is important and powerful enough in Hollywood that her KILN PEOPLE script was read by some of the people in the decision chain, who chose the cliched approach, instead of one that might head in bold directions.)

But soft, let's step back and finish on a charitable note.  For, to reiterate, at least Surrogates is one of the only non-sequel films that's come out in a long time, based upon something that most viewers haven't seen before.  Everyone involved deserves some credit for that, despite the malignant deeper message.  

(And, of course, its box office fizzle will teach the wrong lesson; don't ever try to be original, ever again!)

As for the "steal" aspects... ah well, it's not the first time, and it won't be the last time that I'll write missives like this one. It's a town where everybody can shout the word "coincidence" before they can say "Mama."  

Anyway, what can I do?  Just hope that people will spread internet buzz and say "Hey!  Go to Kiln People for the original concept, done a whole lot better, by the original author."  And, maybe, quality will endure a bit better than cliches.

Good stuff does have one advantage over bad.  It stands up better, with time.

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