Posted by: Mark Nielsen | October 2, 2009

My Soulless Surrogate: Haven’t I Seen This Movie Before?



Did the Schwarzenator have a soul? Does the current movie business have one?


 Did the Schwarzenator have a soul? Does the current movie business have one?


 Robots gone wrong. Clones without a soul. Removable and sale-able souls. Avatars and virtual stand-ins. Replicants. Real Life and other Massive Multiplayer Role Playing Games.

All these removable or duplicate minds and souls, at the movies and in modern culture. Will we ever tire of separating our “selves” from ourselves, maybe to re-create a better self, so we can sit in a movie theater and cathartically watch our artificial selves make a mess of our “real” selves’ lives (theoretically causing us to value those real lives and authentic experiences, when we walk out of the theater and into real life)? Will we ever be just happy with who we are?

Reading bad reviews of Paul Giamatti’s new artsy Cold Souls film & the big-budget (but sinking box-office) Bruce Willis vehicle Surrogates  got me thinking last week.

What I was thinking was this: haven’t I seen this before? Oh yeah, it was called The Matrix Trilogy! And before that, Being John Malkovich (soul intrusion… where the puppetry theme also made me think of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 Pinnochio… the original robot gone bad). 

Of course, before all of the above movies we had Bladerunner . With its bio-mechanical “replicants” who were really trying to acquire a soul and to feel, this film was probably the best of the bunch. And that was in 1982, so maybe the peak for this subgenre of sci-fi happened long ago. Plus, perhaps the source of all of these stories is in some ways Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and her doc-playing-God’s inability to put a soul back into a re-animated body. But now I’m probably at risk of boring you like an English teacher, so let’s get back to the movies…

For instance, since the numerous Surrogates billboard ads seemed mostly to be selling sex, we gotta reach back even before 1982 to the “make your own perfect woman” model, as seen in such non-classics as The Stepford Wives (both old and new), and John Hughes’ silly 1985 teen version, Weird Science. So now we need to talk about Ovid’s ancient Greek/Cypriot mythic figure Pygmalion (man loves a female statue he’s made), and G.B. Shaw’s 1912 play Pygmalion. These were just a few of the original “build a better mate” stories — which also led to some cool movie versions like My Fair Lady, and in a very different way, Bride of Frankenstein.

Then there are the “robot with a heart of gold” movies, from Robocop to Bicentenial Man (not as bad as critics said… but schmaltzy) to A.I. (note Spielberg and Kubrick’s involvement here), and then some, including several really bad comedies. These movies explore the positive or perhaps teachable and programmable aspects of human emotion and consciousness — unlike Kubrick and Clarke’s HAL computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, who was both a killjoy and a literal killer.

Oh, and did I mention practically every existing action-packed Schwarzenfillum?!  Starting with Terminator (robots) and also including  The 6th Day (clones), and Total Recall (virtuals). Arnold was a specialist in the “Who is the real me?” action movie.  One might even say that his religio-apocalyptic hack-job in End of Days subsitutes demonic possession for a more technical form of soul removal and transferrance. (Not a good flick, but I like Gabriel Byrne as Lucifer, as I like almost anything Byrne’s ever done.) Those Arnold films have their place, but I would only call the first two Terminator movies great, the second better than the first, which almost never happens in Hollywood. However, Total Recall  also lets us talk about this virtual cops and/or robot robbers thing, as done in such films as Denzel Washington’s somewhat underrated Virtuosity, plus a few others.

Then there’s the rest of the Philip K. Dick film-adapted oevre  (Bladerunner and Total Recall were both based on this pioneering sci-fi writer’s stories). Most of  Dick’s novels and short stories explore what happens when we depend too much on our digital, cloned or mechanical stand-ins, when we try to re-create what is “real” and thus de-authenticate it. A semi-famous quote from Dick puts it this way: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” 

Notably, Dick was not all about science gone haywire either, but also about soul and the nature of consciousness. Maybe this was because he was a twin, whose sister died a few weeks after they were born. Also notable: Dick had a so-called visitation from God in 1974 which he was never certain was real, or a schizophrenic episode.  And he had a drug problem. And was married five times. And, and, and… in other words, this guy literally lived out there on the edges, with one foot in the tragically real world and the other who knows where.

So Mr. Dick , all by himself, causes us to consider such surrogate or fraudulent-copy movies as  Minority Report (Spielberg again), and Gary Sinise’s Impostor, plus a number of other movie adaptations (most recently Nic Cage’s Next). And there are no less than FOUR Dick-adaptation movies currently in production. Too bad this guy died before he was “discovered”. Tragically, he died at age 53, just a few weeks before Bladerunner, the first movie adaptation, premiered. Not funny, God.

Meanwhile, dark comedy is more the angle Cold Souls is trying to take, though with an existential streak that is more gimmicky promise than satirical reality, if I’m to believe the reviews. As for philosophical, art-house comedy, this stuff has been tackled better before as well. Start with the above-mentioned Malkovich , and then move on to almost all of Oscar-winner Charlie Kaufman’s  other top-flight scripts afterward (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, etc.) . Charlie often explores surreal or absurdist ideas about loss of reality, duplicate or false selves, misuse of tech and creativity, and/or the selling of our souls.

Hey wait, lookit this! Mr. Dick’s novel A Scanner Darkly was made into a movie by another of my favorites: director Richard Linklater (Slacker, Before Sunrise, School of Rock) . Gotta go pick that one up immediately, as I have not seen it yet. Furthermore, Charlie Kaufman says he is very influenced by Philip K. Dick, and Kaufman even did his own adaptation of Scanner  (which went unproduced, but can be read by going to that link there). Who knew?

Meanwhile, for sheer light comedy, Multiplicity, with Michael Keaton (times five), was up-and-down in its writing and acting quality, but had some very funny moments. And I suspect there are plenty of good clone/twin/avatar comedy projects from tv floating around all over the place… I know X-Files worked well with this concept several times, and a recent South Park featuring World of Warcraft was hilarious. 

Bottom line: these two themes (What is the essence of human consciousness? and Will tech lead us where we should not go?) have been done much better in print and movies dozens of times before. The themes often go together, too… so we might say they’re twins (ack! bad joke alert…)

So while both the current movies may be okay, nevertheless, save your $12 (or whatever a flick costs these days… I go so seldom anymore). Instead, rent one of the above classics (or classically bad camp-fests) on DVD.

…or read a book, for cryin’ out loud! Maybe start with a Philip K. Dick short story or two, quicker hits with a whole lotta punch.



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