The plot is straightforward—the invention of surrogates, robotic bodies enabling individuals to experience sensation remotely, has radically changed society. Most people live sequestered in their homes, interacting with the world through their surrogate bodies, which are often constructed to resemble idealized versions of themselves. The protagonist, FBI agent Tom Greer, investigates a murder, the first murder in years. Someone has discovered a method to kill a surrogate’s operator through their robotic body, endangering a population long accustomed to living in absolutely safety. Meanwhile, Greer doubts the new societal order as his marriage crumbles, his wife refusing to see him except through her surrogate.
After many twists and turns, the lethal technology is wired into the surrogate monitoring mainframe where it can murder the entire surrogate-using population instantly. Charging to the rescue, Greer activates safeguards just in time and saves everyone, but then he is presented a choice. He can finish the deactivation to stop the surrogate bodies from shorting out, or he can do nothing and the robot bodies will be destroyed. Having grown to believe that surrogate usage is dehumanizing, more crippling than empowering, he allows the surrogates to be ruined.
Afterwards, the film shows people emerging from their homes, often for the first time in years, to experience the world and each other directly. The audience is encouraged to applaud Greer’s decision and accept the film’s message—the need for unmediated human contact in a digital world.
But, let’s read against the grain for a moment.
Tom Greer will spend the rest of his life in prison. He’s destroyed billions of dollars of other people’s property. Through the power of movies we are sympathetic to Tom, but how would you feel if a luddite, eco-terrorist found a way to blow-up your car remotely? And your insurance company didn’t pay out, because all the cars everywhere exploded at the same time and the car insurance companies went belly-up. I don’t think you’d be too sympathetic to the terrorist’s claims that driving represented a bad lifestyle choice, that you were better off now. I think you’d be pissed.
The ramifications of Tom’s actions reach beyond his marital bliss. At FBI headquarters there are employees who work remotely, living across the country but projecting themselves into surrogates located at the office. I suppose none of those people are going to make to work the next day. Worse, it was shown earlier in the film that the military was totally dependent on surrogates to keep soldiers out of harm’s way. So Tom, in order to force everyone to reconnect at the a human-level, utterly disables the entire military of the United States. But hey, he got to see his wife again in the flesh, so it’s all good, right?