Sometimes they're people. Sometimes they're robots. Sometimes they're animated, sometimes they're holograms. Sometimes they're cute animals that can talk.
They're all saying the same thing.
As I sat in a movie theater last weekend watching Bruce Willis' "Surrogates" predictably proceed to its foregone conclusion, I realized in recent weeks I've been seeing the same movie, over and over again.
It's the old war-against-technology routine. Most of the screenplays - from little guinea pigs vs. household appliances in "G-Force," to Gerard Butler's virtual gladiator controlled from a computer console in "Gamer" - struggle to happy endings. But as Hollywood keeps recycling the theme on an almost weekly basis, you're led to the opposite conclusion: Our side is losing.
Unlike George Orwell's "1984," once the gold standard in techno-political paranoia, the threat no longer comes from an omnipotent dictator and mindless bureaucracy.
It's no longer Us vs. Them. Now it's Us vs. Us.
"Big Brother" is no longer code for the Party that invades our privacy, reads our minds and publically humiliates us. Now we happily volunteer to do it all by ourselves and turn it into a reality-TV series.
"Surrogates," Willis' new cop drama, is set in a not-very-future world where you can let a virtual you live your life. Your "surry" is younger, buffed, blemish-free. It has a better sex life. You stay home in your bathrobe and lie on a recliner with high-tech goggles and electrodes on your head, while it goes out in the dangerous real world
Right - I don't get it either. The little voice in my brain keeps asking, "and the point of this is what?"
Bruce's FBI agent surrogate is blond and baby-faced. The actual Bruce is bald, goateed and stubbled. You know before "Surrogates" reaches its pull-the-plug-on-the-cyborg finale, he's going to have get out there and kick some 'bot butt.
"Surrogates" follows in the footsteps of the forlorn little rag dolls roaming a ravaged planet in "9." In a movie season when Quentin Tarantino rewrote history by pumping Adolf Hitler full of machine gun lead in "Inglorious Basterds," it shares the belief that anything you can dream up qualifies as "real."
Hollywood has always been a dream factory - the dreams just used to be born out of real life. The first special effects were accomplished by stuntmen, doing crazy things on horseback or lighting themselves on fire or jumping from dizzying heights.
But once the industry figured out how to get people out of harm's way and let the computers do the heavy lifting, the human element started getting lost. The more "lifelike" computer-generated effects become, the less we long for the real thing.
Human stuff is messy. Digital stuff is laser-sharp. That's why teens prefer texting to actually talking on the phone, a friend suggested. Less emotion that way. If they want more excitement, it's simple: text while you drive. There's even a name for it: intextication.
These new virtual-life movies seem to share a general unease with these developments. Many warn that we'd better do something about this while we still can. But the message feels like an afterthought, as though we've already forgotten what it was about real life that was so worth preserving in the first place.
Luckily, Maui still has plenty of ways of reminding us. Last Saturday morning, we ventured over for the annual Kula Festival at St. John's Church.
We bought giant leeks, potatoes and tomato plants off burgeoning produce tables. With The Hula Honeys providing the sublime soundtrack, Maui stretched out below like the panoramic backdrop of a fairy tale.
Island life was parceled into paintings and photos in the craft booths, or happy experiences to bid for at the silent auction. The sermon didn't come from the pulpit that morning, but from the snapshots of everything in perfect harmony, everywhere you looked.
Similar serenity descended on Haiku that evening when vocalist Donna De Lory performed at The Studio Maui. The former Madonna backup singer who now prefers a more meditative Eastern path, didn't sing from the stage, but from the dance floor, surrounded by the audience, all dancing with her.
Weaving themes of sanctuary, spirit, grace and thanks into her lyrics, as tabla and cello added to the sensual, mesmerizing beat, the diminutive singer kept disappearing among the dancers, like a swimmer in ocean waves.
With nowhere to watch from, nowhere to hide, there was no option for the audience but to lose our "selves" and become part of the swirling dance.
It was hardly the kind of thing a lot of us would have shown up for, had we only known. Days later, joyous echoes lingering, we were still giving silent thanks we hadn't been warned.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.