“Don’t go out without your surrie.” That’s what Maggie Peters says to her husband, Tom Peters. Doesn’t it sound just a little like “Don’t go out without your umbrella.”?
“Surrie” is what people in the movie, Surrogates, call the robots through which they live their lives. A few years ago, it would have seemed a complicated task to represent what is real and what only appearance, but then The Matrix happened and everybody seems to get how that could be. The deal in Surrogates is that the person who has bought the surrogate stays home lying in a “stim chair” and “experiences” the world through the eyes and ears and skin of the surrogate.
That means that what Maggie Peters said to her husband actually meant, “Never go out of your bedroom. Sit there forever in your stim chair.”
That’s what she does herself. When, in the emotionally climactic scene, the actual Tom Peters, to the left, confronts the surrogate of his wife, Maggie Peters, to the right, what he has to say to the surrogate is, “I want HER. The woman sitting back there in her room.”
It is impossible to keep from entering that world, the world of which Surrogates is the logical culmination. A man takes “a step in that direction” in the most literal sense when he “puts his best foot forward” in meeting a new person. The “best foot” is not the most representative foot; it is the one he would most like to be known by. In dating, it serves as “the self I could be in this relationship, should it become necessary.”
Then there are the guys who rent expensive cars and hire expensive escorts in order to attend their class reunions appropriately. This is not “who they are,” of course, but it is who they can get away with seeming to be for the evening or the weekend. This is all the stuff of comedy because it’s only for the weekend and usually the guy is found out and ridiculed, but today, I would like to take it seriously.
Surrogates is about a society that is built on that principle: the human being is essentially irrelevant; the surrogate is the real thing. Let’s take Maggie Peters, for instance. I can’t show you the woman she actually is—the woman in the bedroom in the stim chair—but I can show you the person she wants to appear to be. She is perfect in every way as you can see and no matter how close the close-up gets, she is still perfect in every way. Perfect body, flawless hair, graceful movement—everything. That’s important to her and to her friends—those are the surrogates that her surrogate hangs out with—who are just as near to perfection as she is.
Here’s Bruce Willis “in” his surrogate. (That’s the surrogate of his detective partner behind him.) He is as nearly perfect as his wife is. He is young; he has a great complexion; he has hair. And with all of that, he’s a good detective. We do see more of him (in the flesh) than we see of his wife because he has to work nights—the best crimes happen at night—and sometimes his surrie is still charging when he gets up in the morning. When that happens, we see old bald grumpy Tom Potter in the kitchen with his spritely perfect wife—the wife’s surrogate, that is—and they look odd together. Being married to someone who looks like he does is an embarrassment to her. Being married to someone who will not show herself except “as” the surrogate, angers him. That conflict is what the plot is about. Naturally (repeat of spoiler alert) after he destroys all the surrogates in the country, he gets his real wife back. Bluebirds sing. The rainbow glows. The sky is blue. The streets are filled with pale overweight people in bathrobes. That’s the relationship heart of the story. There is also, of course, a bad guy plot and a lot of shooting.
Now back to the dark side. Maggie has traveled far down the road that begins with “putting your best foot forward.” She now lives in a society where the physical proximity of surries and the remote isolation of humans are taken for granted. She is addicted—that’s the word they use in the movie—to “appearing in public” in the form of this doll who is not her. The woman lying in the dark in the bedroom accepts and acknowledges the compliments of all the other humans who see her (through their surries, of course) and she loves that so much that she will not live in the real world. The argument of this movie is a reduction ad absurdum. It takes where we are and the direction in which we are headed and projects how really bad it would be if we followed that direction to its logical conclusion.
Could we really be “addicted” to looking better than we really look? Is it fair to judge the strength of such an addiction by what we would give up rather than break it? My answers are Yes and Yes.
If we start by putting our best foot forward, do we continue by passing up a concert because we don’t have “concert-worthy clothes?” I have clothes that are good enough for the occasion, of course, but they make me look like someone who doesn’t go to a lot of concerts and I am not willing to look like that. That illustrates a meaning of “addicted” and it gives a measure of the strength of the addiction. Choosing not to go the concert and going out to buy the fancy clothes are just alternative answers. They measure the power of the desire on the same scale.
Do we go up to Botox next? In a sense, this is like the concert example, except it is about your own face. If you get Botox injected—it is essentially a muscle relaxant—you get rid of those nasty frown lines. But since you have changed the muscle itself, you also get rid of the ability to frown. Ever. Would a Botox user imagine that she will never encounter a “frown-worthy” situation?
Does plastic surgery come after that? I’m not thinking, obviously, of the kind of plastic surgery that repairs a cleft palette. I am thinking of the kind that tightens up skin that has really earned its right to relax a little. Are there people who would be willing to participate actively in a social life with a face lift and unwilling without it? If we are considering how to calibrate an addiction, then the value of a social life you are willing to pass up unless you have the face lift is one measure.
On beyond plastic surgery—well beyond—is the premise of Surrogate, where people “live through” their “surries” rather than meeting each other “in the flesh.” The premise of the movie is an extreme and socially presumed commitment to the appearance of youth and beauty. My argument in this post is that we are headed that direction and it is not too early to start looking for somewhere to get off the train.
 SPOILER ALERT. In the last scene, the real Tom Peters is holding the real Maggie Peters in his arms. In the step before that, Tom Peters destroys all the surrogates in the U.S. A man who knows what he wants, I guess.
 I know you can rent cars for the weekend. I don’t really know about escorts. Maybe there’s a price break if the first rental day is a weekday.
 This actually is Rosamund Pike, the actress who plays the part. I know that because Jonathan Mostow, the director, notes in his commentary that Pike held that position and didn’t even blink as several thousand pounds of camera equipment came down toward her face. Mostow’s commentary is very good, by the way.
 She says that appearing as the surrogate is “better” and tries to make the case that it is better for both of them.
 Surrogates doesn’t really present the problem for men as acutely as the problem for women. Stereotypically, a man wants to be (or appear to be) powerful and a woman wants to be (or appear to be) beautiful. The addiction question, adjusted for gender, would be whether a man is willing to appear weak and whether a woman is willing to appear ugly. This movie is set up to be more about the woman problem, although in a spirit of generosity, they include silly men who want to look handsome.