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Podcast script 34:

 

mySF Project podcast, number 34

 

Download at: <a href="http://media.libsyn.com/media/pataphysics/mysf_034_2010_08_15.mp3"> mysf_034_2010_08_15.mp3</a>

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Index:

Introduction
Surrogates, directed by Mostow
Summarising the point of view of the text
Gamer, directed by Nevildine and Taylor
Shaviro interprets Gamer
SF: commercial products of popular culture
One word to bind them
Critical media literacy

There is worth

Podcast 35 preview
Resource list

 

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Introduction

Podcast 34 discusses two new SciFi DVDs, but neither of these is really suitable for teaching in secondary school. So why cover these? Well, because every teacher knows that the vast majority of Science Fiction films the students watch will be from the local DVD library.

This podcast looks at two DVDs with ratings or content that make their display in a middle secondary high school unlikely (certainly in this town)  and asks, with a cry of despair in the voice, how SciFi students can be supported to apply both a knowledgeable SF filter and a critical media literacy perspective to their home DVD nights.

This podcast relates to the 'Ghost in the Shell' theme area of the mySF Project: the study of human / machine interaction.

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Surrogates, directed by Mostow

The first of two linked titles is director Jonathan Mostow's Surrogates (2009). Even though it has such a spooky and Science Fictional title, Surrogates (Mostow, 2009) is just exactly the dictionary definition, it is about substitution. The surrogates are plastic and metal substitutes for people. They are driven by, inhabited by, voiced by actual people somewhere else, through a remote telepresence system. So, while the plastic substitutes might harken back to Westworld (Crichton, 1973), A.I. (Spielberg, 2001) and Bladerunner (Scott, 1982), as noted by Pollard (2010) they are not in the least similar. The substitutes have no intelligence and no independent thought. They are just empty vessels that can move around and can only act because they are driven by remote humans.  

The surrogates were developed to assist the disabled but have become a standard for all work. The actual workers control the surrogates from couches with metal hoops quite like those that made Brigitte Helm robotic, in Lang's Metropolis (1927).

Into the world of Surrogates (Mostow, 2010) comes a large problem in the shape of a weapon developed by a defence contractor that wipes the controlling mechanism of the surrogate as well as killing the human controller back on their couch, a demise perhaps borrowed from the much stronger film Brainstorm (Trumbull, 1983) and William Gibson's Black Ice from Johnny Mnemonic (Longo, 1995).

Surrogates (Mostow, 2010) was based in a graphic novel but substantially reworked for the screen. Mostow and others saw the use of substitute people that do all the actual work as the philosophical argument behind the narrative. Mostow claims Surrogates (Mostow, 2010) as a "metaphor for life in the digital age". Everything can be done online and this means that "on a human level we’re far more disconnected because we’re not really interfacing with people in person any more” (Cistarto, 2010).

A few critics note the extrapolation of "how we interact with social networking sites" to the premise of the wholesale use of surrogates in all societies as fascinating and a worthy critique of a "dark, futuristic reality" (Mellini, 2010). But even supporters of aspects of the narrative were left with doubts.

A distraught FBI agent played by Bruce Willis beats a surrogate until its plastic face drops away, apparently causing no pain to the human operator running it remotely. Yet the surrogate has a use for sexual pleasure, so the ability of the surrogate to transmit feelings is difficult to discern. The surrogates have made crime disappear but as Pollard (2010) points out, why can't criminals use surrogates to rob banks? Indeed, the narrative turns on one human controller who takes control of several surrogates, using them for a hare-brained, demolish-the-world scheme.

For this viewer, the stupidest idea was the use of a surrogate by the FBI to sit on a stool and watch a dozen monitors at once while the controller was in Miami. Why on Earth would the controller need a robot to sit and watch screens? Why aren't the screens available to the controller in Miami without having a silly metal being sit on a stool all day? These obvious questions were not addressed.

The future world of Surrogates (Mostow, 2010) has seen remarkable advances in the realm of machine movement, but nothing else. Surrogates drive cars or trucks or planes: an expensive and ludicrous technology when the transport itself could be piloted by the human controller with much greater ease, without the plastic pal sitting there.

The director claims working on the movie has made him rethink time 'plugged in', away from family and friends (Neal, 2010). As with so many of the lesser SciFi narratives, Surrogates (Mostow, 2010) is a cautionary tale designed to discuss the dangers of ubiquitous technologies, linked, Mostow says, to the role of the ancient Greek play helping society address its anxieties. This would be part of the Frankenstein Complex, the fear of the created machine, except the machine is just a dumb shell, a moving mannequin, never more than a mask.

There are some neat aspects of the narrative, such as the different motives for using the weapon that kills surrogate and controller together, as well as the final ethical question seen when Bruce Willis (in a female surrogate shell) hovers its finger over a button that will disable all surrogates. The sets, makeup and extras are memorable, also. The students would have loved the helicopter crash where Bruce Willis' surrogate (a hairy and younger version of Bruce) has an arm ripped off but still leaps about playing container parkour, armless and gushing green goop.

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Summarising the point of view of the text

In Unit 3 of Switched on!: Developing language using media texts, the authors Clothier and Donohue (1998) suggest that students should be asked to summarise the point of view on the major issue in the film in a single sentence (Clothier & Donohue, 1998, p148), such as, "People rely on technology too much", or some such . Students would then debate the merits of their single sentences, compare them, and refine them collaboratively. A follow-up question would be, 'In what way has this film influenced your own point of view on the issue?'

Both brief tasks are suitable for Surrogates (Mostow, 2010) and it is likely the narrative will provide useful discussions, especially as the tendentious exhortation against technology is quite a common message, especially amongst the very many DVDs that arrive warning of genetic engineering, fiddling about with time, wrecking the environment, trying to make intelligent machines and generally doing anything with scientific technology apart from things we know are safe, such as the internal combustion engine.

The conservative nature of Surrogates (Mostow, 2010) will certainly be felt, but it may take more coaxing to see the missed opportunities of this narrative, such as the need for direct human contact, the changes to society as humans use technology to communicate and act, and the destruction of established norms as humans become drivers of a vast fleet of plastic shells designed to simulate and improve upon current society.

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Gamer, directed by Nevildine and Taylor

The second DVD offering noted here, Neveildine and Taylor's Gamer (2009) shares some concerns with Surrogates (Mostow, 2010).

Both narratives deal with a near future world. While Surrogates (Mostow, 2010) displays a future that has made astonishing gains in robotics and telepresence systems, but very little else, Gamer by Nevildine and Taylor (2009) depicts enormous breakthroughs in nanotechnology, with major diminutions in everything we know as the civil society.

In this near future, convicted murderers can opt to take part in a media event called Slayers. Well, they do not really take part. Actually, it's their drivers that run them. They are just meat puppets for gamers running their bodies.  

Before discussing Gamer (Nevildine & Taylor, 2009), it is necessary to turn aside to the Science Fiction narrative device of nanotechnology. I doubt MIT's Eric Drexler would have guessed the impact on Science Fiction caused by the publication of The Engines of Creation (Drexler, 1987). Drexler gave SF an extraordinary new problem solver: machines that could do almost anything, at a molecular level, following rules to self-replicate and change atomic structure from the bottom up, according to understandably vague instructions somehow passed to these tiny marvels. The main impact was a new way to solve SciFi problems - just use nanotechnology to explain this marvel or this plot twist.

I followed Nanotechnology in SciFi for several years, through the guidance of Gail at Gaslight Books <www.gaslightbooks.com.au>, collecting Nanodreams (Elliott, 1995) and Nanotech (Dann & Dozois, 1998) as well as dozens of novels in which nanotech plays a fundamental role, the most influential of which was the Greg Bear story 'Blood Music' and then the novel of the same name (Bear, 1985). Bear's wonderful smart cell societies could not really be called nanotechnology, but that did not matter, the idea was the most important thing: life is really about the atomic, molecular and cellular level. These are the building blocks for everything else, so, controlling the building machines at this level could create … anything.

The planet Venus was demolished by nanomachines, they came in from the Moon and destroyed the Earth, they built communication satellites from asteroids, they created a planet like an even-more-intelligent bee hive, they downloaded memories of a serial killer into an indestructible murderer, they made Terminators impossible to terminate, they rebuilt beings in any form from sunlight and stray atoms ...   nanites colonised my grandmother!

In Gamer (Nevildine & Taylor, 2009), nanomachines make people into receivers for commands they cannot disobey. The introduction of nanites into the brain causes a controlling mechanism for all behaviour to be constructed so that a remote player can control all actions of the subject. This is the stuff of the Heinlein puppet-masters, the Pod people, the anything makers, perhaps even the very stuff of legend that made earlier times believe chameleons ate air and mushrooms self-replicated in nothing at all.

The nanite controllers are essential for two massive games, 'Society' and 'Slayers'. The former is a Sim City kind of activity with sex, terrible music and uncomfortable clothes. The 'Slayers' game is a first-person shooter with real bullets and real prisoners killing each other, a familiar idea for several SF narratives including The Running Man (Glaser, 1987).

Gamer  (Nevildine & Taylor, 2009) follows one murderer being played in the 'Slayers' game, a  tough ex-military sort forced into shooting his comrade and now the only survivor of over twenty Slayer games. When he escapes he searches for his beautiful wife, who is being played as a meat puppet in Society. In this near future dystopia people are either played, giving their bodies up to be used by others, or those with enough resources stay home and play through other bodies.

The film has a good deal of violence, some slightly interesting sets reminiscent of Kubrick's Clockwork Orange (Kubrick, 1971), a predictable story but some interesting moments courtesy of Michael C. Hall of Dexter fame who plays Ken Castle, the inventor of the brain nanotechnology and the world's richest man. The best five minutes of Gamer  (Nevildine & Taylor, 2009) for me was the song-and-dance routine near the climax when a team of killers from the Slayers game dance an excellent 'I've got you under my skin' led by a crooning Hall.

The information dump near the resolution of the narrative tells us that while nanomachines are receivers for all those played in Slayers and Society, the evil genius has the only nanomite transmitter and it is his ambition to have the whole world walking lock-step to his instructions.

There are several, severe problems in Gamer (Nevildine & Taylor, 2009) including the simplistic model of receiver and transmitter that just does not make sense, but there are also some interesting technical aspects of this film. One of these aspects was the use by the crew of hand-held digital cameras for the gritty and jerky war scenes. Another was the vision of a future teenager in his bedroom controlling our hero Slayer with virtual reality gloves, surrounded by a wrap-around video screen. The vision of future control technologies would make a worthwhile talking point for high school students, but this movie could not be shown in schools due to its severe violence, exploitative sex scenes and sheer lack of anything worthy to contribute to the theme of the human interface with the machine.

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Shaviro interprets Gamer

Academic Steven Shaviro has written a long essay based around Gamer on his blog site (Shaviro, 2009) and has followed this with lectures on the film. He makes several points in his essay and one of these is the film's attempt to criticise the commercialisation of violence while the film itself is patently commercial, selling itself through its long scenes of gunfire and massacre. He argues it is possible to see an extrapolation of current society's online entertainment in Gamer (Nevildine & Taylor, 2009) with some confusion between the real world and gamespace. Shaviro believes the movie to be, "somewhere between an allegory, and a concrete exemplification, of the way that, today, value is extracted from circulation (especially media circulation) as well as from direct production" (Shaviro, 2009). The leftist interpretation of Gamer is interesting reading and draws in many sources of value for those interested in political Science Fiction, but for my part I was astonished to see how much could be wrung from the desiccated corpse of an obvious, shallow and derivative pot-boiler.

Both Surrogates (Mostow, 2010) and Gamer (Nevildine & Taylor, 2009) are interested in the role of the individual in a near-future society changed fundamentally by technological innovation. Both are very much the sort of movie that high school students borrow from DVD libraries or watch online. They may be in the Thriller or Science Fiction sections of the DVD shop, but both employ familiar Science Fiction tropes to focus on individual will and technological mediation.  Both have been recommended to me by students because I teach Science Fiction. After I watched the movies I grieved that the students had not distanced themselves sufficiently from the movies to apply either scientific scrutiny or critical analysis to the texts, as both or either filter may have altered their recommendations.

Scientific scrutiny does not mean analysis of nanotechnology but rather scientific consistency. Any number of scientific wonders may be found in SF, but the audience requires the use of the wonder to be logical. Students are excellent at grasping inconsistencies when discussing a film, but they do need their attention focused on  the point to see the problem. For instance, in Surrogates (Mostow, 2010) why do people have their surrogates at their homes and not their workplaces? Why would a person running a remote system have that device travel through busy transport for hours just to arrive at their work? Why not just jump into a surrogate stored and used at their workplace, eliminating transport needs? And in Gamer (Nevildine & Taylor, 2009) how can a human body function if its perceptions can only receive and not transmit back information to its controller? If pleasure is transmitted back to the player, why is pain not transmitted? It is suspected by this writer that the many SF films watched at home do not receive this kind of analysis. 

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SF: commercial products of popular culture

In Targeting Media: Television and Film by Lopez, Perrine and Wood (2000), many criticisms of Science Fiction texts are found. Science Fiction films are "rarely intellectual" but instead are "commercial products of popular culture" (Lopez, Perrine & Wood, 2000). They note that "many recent science fiction films …question the concept of what it means to be human, or what it ought to mean" and these questions are "explored through the interaction of humans with human-like robots". They go on to state that, "a major appeal of the science fiction genre has always been the representation of exciting, high tech and action-filled worlds populated with clearly defined heroes and villains. These simple morality plays, where evil is punished, and bravery and ingenuity always triumph, provide solace for the audience in the frequently unjust real world" (Lopez, Perrine & Wood, 2000, p138). 

Based on Gamer (Nevildine & Taylor, 2009) and Surrogates (Mostow, 2010) such an overview of the Science Fiction genre is understandable. In many ways both these texts focusing on the human/machine interface are simple and predictable. After all, both have villains seeking to destroy the stability of their world through a vast, technological intervention and both villains are beaten by the determination, will and courage of a male hero seeking freedom for himself and others. This can be seen as classic, comic-book adventure. Yet, as seen through the discussion, both texts can be used to discuss significant contemporary issues: the dependence of the modern world on the technological surrogate for human interaction, and the division of the modern world into those who employ the technological interfaces and those who are coerced and oppressed by them.

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One word to bind them

To deal with Science Fiction as genre Lopez, Perrine and Wood suggest the use of a word pyramid. In this exercise a class of students is divided into pairs and each pair is given a sticky note and told to come up with the best one word to describe science fiction films. The pairs then combine into fours to agree on the best word until "the whole class is to decide on one word" (Lopez, Perrine & Wood, 2000, p138). It is likely the authors might have expected the word 'prophetic' to arise for the entire genre.

In a Masters thesis for Brigham Young University, Bradley Moss addresses the role of the secondary student analysing film in class and watching films at home. He warns that without a framework for viewing texts (and Moss used Teenage Films for his Action Research) there could be dire consequences, "if students are not trained in decoding skills for media, the many and repeated viewings of media will place students in a position where media is constructing their reality" (Moss, 2009). Students need to be aware that "media encounters are conversations in which they are actively engaged, therefore media education should stress that audiences are participants in and constructors of the meanings of media texts".

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Critical media literacy

Moss adopts a model of critical media literacy found in Kellner and Share (2007), where "teachers become cultural workers involved in citizen education working towards the ultimate goal of revealing the structural and ideological forces that influence everyday life" (Moss, 2009). Students and teachers are required to share power to "uncover truths of media representation" (Kellner and Share, 2005, in Moss, 2009).

Moss argues that students see films in their homes as entertainment and those in class as educational. When watching a hired DVD for entertainment students are Spectators. Spectatorship involves the passivity of the viewer in a pleasurable imaginary state so that they "will not be aware of the values communicated by the film text" (Moss, 2009).

But Moss' research shows the divide of Spectatorship and media literacy is not always so sharp and clear. This was seen through interviews with students after they completed a film course with Moss. Students noted their perceptions had changed. Students said they looked 'deeper' into the film, "what the film means" (Moss, 2009).

Moss does not claim this influence was due to his exercises and activities at school. Instead, he believes the students are expressing a new way of watching films he calls functional media literacy skills. This functional literacy relates to an understanding of how the film was made, of the camera angles and placement of the dynamic figures in the frame. Moss notes with disappointment that this functional literacy does not relate to the "meanings or intents of the author per se, or the power structures behind the creation of film and perpetuation of media representations" (Moss, 2009). Students have understood elements of functional media literacy and can use these understandings when sent out to make a short digital video, but this limited literacy does not extend to analysing texts "based on their own experiences and understandings outside the classroom" (Moss, 2009, p100). 

It is very difficult to inculcate critical media literacy and even more difficult to assess to what extent this literacy may be employed outside the classroom. However, Moss puts forward a plan to support critical media literacies through focusing on genre. He asks his students why a genre should continue to be interesting, "Why, if we know what a film contains, are we interested in watching it?" (Moss, 2009). Instead of asking the class to come up with one descriptor for a genre using the Pyramid method suggested by Lopez, Perrine and Wood, (2000), Moss seeks a list of genres and sub-genres, to encourage specificity. He also suggests individual practise where students are shown "three short film clips from films of different genres" (Moss, 2009). The students are to identify the genre, two or three icons of that genre, two or three archetypes, and two to three "rituals of each genre shown in the film" (Moss, 2009). Students can be assessed "through their participation in class discussion and activities" as well as "their written response to the film genre clips" (Moss, 2009).

Most important to Moss was the students' own film-making. Adapting this to the Science Fiction genre, students would be asked to create a storyboard for a scene of less than two minutes . The scene must have "at least one icon, one archetype and one ritual" from the SF genre. The students bring their group scripts to the teacher for a story conference and "students can be assessed on their participation in story conferences with the instructor and by turning in their storyboards" (Moss, 2009, p115).

This podcast started by noting that many secondary students are watching SF movies at home. Often these viewings are much less critical, are much less thoughtful than those undertaken with teachers at school. Quite often, the DVDs or downloaded movies watched would not be able to be screened at school, due to their content and/or censorship classification, often for extreme violence.

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There is worth … 

Through a brief discussion of recent DVDs Gamer (Nevildine & Taylor, 2009) and Surrogates (Mostow, 2010) a case can be made that there is worth in some of the themes of the texts, even though their structure is predictable and appeal sensational. Moss' (2009) research does show that students' home viewing can be influenced by school studies within a genre, at the very least through functional film literacy. When a teacher directs students' attention to scientific inconsistencies in a film, as found amply in both texts, there is evidence that this type of scrutiny may be transferred to home viewing.

Through examination of the SF genre itself: its icon, archetypes and devices, there is also some evidence that students may come to employ critical media literacies. According to Moss (2009), if students go on from genre studies, classroom analysis and careful discussion into creating their own films within the genre, students' critical media literacies can be further developed, although much more research is needed in this area to claim more than just slight influence on home viewing modes: from Spectator to critical participant in the text. Without these influences students' repeated viewings may place them in a position where the media is constructing their reality. In the case of many recent SF offerings found on the DVD shelves, this would be unfortunate for our hopes of a civil society.

Thanks for listening to Podcast 34. Thanks also to SlowAlan for the musical segues as well as the podcast opening and closing music.

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Podcast 35

Podcast 35 looks at a text for teachers in their classrooms, Exploring Genre: Science Fiction, by Barbara Stanners. This Australian text was first published in 2009 and comes from Phoenix Education. It is designed to provide in-depth analyses and exercises to assist students articulate their understanding. It is aimed at Australian school year levels from nine to twelve.

If you want to find out more about the mySF Project and its blog site, aim for www.pataphysics.net.au/mysf_project. You can also send an email to michaels@pataphysics.net.au.

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Resource list

Bear, G. (1985). Blood Music. New York: Ace Books.

Crichton, M. (Director). (1973). Westworld. Written by Michael Crichton. MGM films.

Cistarto, M. (2010). 'Surrogates'. Review of Surrogates on Harvardwood.org. Accessed 10 July, 2010 at http://www.harvardwood.org/?HH200910

Clothier, E. & Donohoe, L. (1998). Switched on!: Developing language using media texts. 'Unit 3: Film'. Melbourne: Longman.

Dann, J. and Dozois, G. (Editors). Nanotech. New York: Ace Books.

Dictionary.com (2010). Definition of 'surrogate'. Dictionary.com. Accessed 10 July, 2010 at http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/surrogate

Drexler, E. (1987). The Engines of Creation: the Coming Era of Nanotechnology. New York: Doubleday.

Elliott, E. (Editor). (1995) Nanodreams. Riverdale, New York: Baen Books.

Glaser, P. (Director). (1987). The Running Man. Based on the novel by Stephen King. TriStar Pictures.

Kellner, D., & Share, J. (2005). Toward critical media literacy: Core concepts, debates, organizations, and policy. Discourse: Studies in the cultural politics of education, 26(3), 369-386.

Kellner, D., & Share, J. (2007). 'Critical media literacy is not an option'. Learning Inquiry, 1(1), 59-69.

Kubrick, S. (Director). (1971). A Clockwork Orange. Based on a novel by Anthony Burgess. Warner Brothers. Kubrick, 1971)

Lang, F. (Director). (1927). Metropolis. Written by Thea von Harbou. Kino DVD, 2002 retouched version.

Longo, R. (Director). (1995). Johnny Mnemonic. Written by William Gibson. Sony Pictures DVD.

Lopez, A., Perrine, G. and Wood, K. (2000). Targeting Media: Television and Film. Edited by Kylie Lowson. Sydney: Blake Education.

Mellini, M. (2010). Interview with Jordan Belfi of  Surrogates. Starpulse.com. Accessed 10 July, 2010 at http://www.starpulse.com/news/index.php/2009/09/23/jordan_belfi_gives_insight_to_surrogates

Moss, B. (2009). 'Positioning, spectatorship, and Teen Films: Giving Students the Power for Effective Media Education'. Thesis, Brigham Young University. August, 2009. Accessed at http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/ETD/image/etd3108.pdf 24 July, 2010.

Mostow, J. (Director). (2009). Surrogates. Written by Brancato, J. & Ferris, M. Story by Robert Venditti. Touchstone Pictures.

Neal, D. (2010). 'Surrogates Director Jonathan Mostow: The Irony of Technology'. Suite 101. Posted 4 May, 2010. Accessed 9 July, 2010 at http://scififantasyfilms.suite101.com/article.cfm/surrogates-director-jonathan-mostow-the-irony-of-technoloGy

Nevildine, M. & Taylor, B. (Directors). (2009). Gamer.  Written by Nevildine, M. & Taylor, B. Liosgate. Roadshow Entertainment DVD.

Oshii, M. (Director). (1989). Pat Labor 2. Original story by Headgear. Concept by Yuki Masami. Script by Kazunori Itoh. Madman DVD, English version, 1995. Tohokushinsha Film Corporation.

Pollard, G. (2010). 'Surrogate review'. Blog entry.  First aired on RTHK Radio 4’s “Morning Call”. Accessed 10 July, 2010 at http://rthktheworks.wordpress.com/2009/10/01/movie-review-surrogates/

Shaviro, S. (2009). 'Gamer' review, on The Pinocchio Theory blog. Posted December 15th, 2009. Accessed July 10, 2010 at http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?m=200912.

Scott, R. (Director). (1982). Bladerunner. Based on the novel by Philip K Dick. Warner Movies.

Spielberg, S. (Director). (2001). A.I.. Short story by Brian Aldiss. Warner and Dreamworks film.

Trumbull, D. (Director). (1983). Brainstorm. From a story by Bruce Joel Rubin. MGM film.

Wharton, D. (2010). 'Interview: Surrogates Director Jonathan Mostow'. Cinemablend.com. Posted 25th January, 2010. Accessed 9 July, 2010 at http://www.cinemablend.com/dvdnews/Interview-Surrogates-Director-Jonathan-Mostow-22455.html

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ends

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