You wire yourself up. You switch the computer on. You lie back in your leather recliner. And then your ‘surrogate’ steps out of the closet and steps into the world. This is a sophisticated robot that looks and sounds like you – without the wrinkles. Everything the surrogate experiences you also experience. Everything you choose to ‘do’ in your own mind is actually done through the surrogate in the real world. You have all of the experience without any of the risks: no disease, no knife crime, no car crashes; or rather, when the crashes happen you just get another surrogate.
This is the premise of the latest Bruce Willis film Surrogates, which is far more entertaining and intriguing than most reviews let on. The special effects are unimpressive; the production values are not very high; the acting is almost non-existent. But it’s a very tightly constructed plot that keeps you thinking through every scene; and the twist at the end brings a kind of epiphany about what it is to be human that moved me far more than I expected.
The idea of living through a surrogate is a clever one. We hear so much today about the attractions and dangers of living in a ‘virtual’ world – when we ‘leave’ our physical environment and get lost in a digital reality that seems quite divorced from the real world. But this film is about something more subtle: living ‘virtually’ in the real world.
Of course we do this all the time. We show a certain face, we project a certain image. We choose our clothes, our hairstyle, the frames for our glasses. We walk and talk in a certain way. I choose a title and a banner photo for my blog! These are all good things. And we would be naive to think that people become more truly themselves if they are simply stripped of the external expressions of their personality. The very word ‘person’ means ‘mask’ in Greek – as if our innermost being is inseparable from the outward expressions of who we are.
But there is always the question of how much this mask helps someone to know me, and how much it hides me; whether it allows authenticity or stifles it. Bruce Willis faces a crisis when he realises that he and his wife are only capable of communicating with each other through their surrogates (I won’t give any more plot away…). I don’t think we should just abandon all the social habits we have adopted over the years – it’s these concrete aspects of culture that make us human. But it would be good to ask more often what is really helping us to communicate with others, and what is getting in the way.