On meat bags and their machines

Surrogates

on September 25, 2009 by Mark Keizer
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In another world, maybe the world where people sit at home in special chairs and wear fancy headsets that control robotic versions of themselves, Surrogates would have been thought-provoking Sci-fi like Blade Runner or 12 Monkeys. Or even finely-polished, semi-dystopian fun like Minority Report. Instead, Surrogates lives in our world, the world where a nifty concept gets sheathed in off-the-rack clothing, chopped down to a mere 88 minutes and thrown into theaters feeling like only a hint of what it could have been. Blame for this “good, but should have been much better” fall entry can be spread evenly between director Jonathan Mostow (who still hasn’t matched the intensity he brought to 1997’s Breakdown ) and screenwriters Michael Ferris and John Brancato ( Terminator 3 ) who manage to take a great idea and walk with it. Mid-range box office is in this movie’s future, despite star Bruce Willis and a fanboy-friendly concept.

As mandated by law, this film is based on a graphic novel. The Surrogates, by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, was released in 2005, making it one of the faster graphic novel-to-film adaptations. The movie stays close to the source material in the broad strokes, but reduces most of its philosophical implications to faint background chatter and dumps its more difficult commentaries on racism and religion. What’s left is still very workable as a movie. After all, someone has to dramatize the logical conclusion to our current dependence on technology and add car chases. Here we’re dropped into a future world where men and women never leave the house and, instead, recline in “stim chairs” and manipulate androids built to resemble their idealized selves. These robots go out into the world and live, work and play under the control of their sedentary human puppeteers. As we learn in the well-done opening credit sequence, such a world was the inevitable endgame of a society addicted to technology and vanity. But while crime dropped precipitously on the robot-clogged streets, (questionable since criminals can easily send Surrogates to commit crimes for them) the world still needs cops. Especially those who can sell a rote end-of-the-world, red-wire/blue-wire climax and verbalize the fair amount of rules in this surrogate-infested world. In I, Robot (which was also adapted into an underachieving movie), Isaac Asimov got it down to a tight three. Here, rules and laws and new pieces of software conveniently appear to dodge approaching holes in the concept or move the story along. As we learn, injury to a surrogate does not harm its operator. But that changes when parties unknown create a wicked new gun that can destroy a surrogate and simultaneously kill its human owner (or meatbag, as humans are labeled). One of its early victims is the son of Lionel Canter (James Cromwell), the wheelchair-bound inventor of Surrogates who cashed out of the surrogate factory called VSI seven years earlier for a hermit’s life. Investigating are FBI agents Greer (Willis) and Peters (Radha Mitchell) or, more accurately, the Surrogates of Greer and Peters, their skin alien-smooth and their stares off-world glassy. Part of the fun here is the sometimes surprising reveal of the human behind the surrogate. The flesh and blood Greer looks exactly like rugged American film actor Bruce Willis, the star of action movies like Surrogates. But some humans opt for perfect versions of their flawed selves or something totally different, like the middle-aged white man who chose a young and handsome African-American surrogate.

While the film can’t escape its own robotic storytelling and inability to elicit a genuine emotion, it does deserve credit for keeping the focus on people, not robots. Humans, like Greer’s wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike), would never risk being seen as less than perfect by taking a vacation and “leaving the unit at home.” Living through her surrogate shields her from the pain of a family tragedy. Greer himself is beginning to have doubts about the surrogate concept, which renders human-to-human contact obsolete and unnecessary. His doubts grow stronger after a standard chase (rendered with Mostow’s hollow professionalism) that leads to the “death” of his surrogate, so the real Greer must venture outside for the first time in years.

The problem with Surrogates is that the material was not asking to be made into this kind of movie. There’s too much social commentary and too many thematic avenues that could have been explored with a less workmanlike, more humanist director. But even the technophobes among us will find something to enjoy. With 99% of the population lounging at home and living through their surrogate, millions of Luddites cling to the old ways. The real Greer’s investigation into who killed Canter’s son and who manufactured the gun leads him to a compound run by a ragtag group of anti-surrogate humans. The leader of this “reservation” is The Prophet (Ving Rhames), dreadlocked and pretty lame as cinematic revolutionaries go.

One thing you can say about Surrogates is that its world is rendered with a great amount of detail. Production and sound design make this future world plausible. The interiors are colorfully lit with noir touches, although the exteriors are flat and give off a backlot vibe. The script avoids preaching, but doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. As a cautionary tale, the movie has much to say; it just chooses not to say it. What’s left is a passable, reasonably intriguing springboard for action. Then again, that’s the world we live in. The world where a studio can’t fully commit to the more difficult ideas in a movie’s premise because if it underperforms, would ABC still spin it off into a one-hour drama series?


Distributor: Touchstone Pictures
Cast: Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, James Cromwell and Ving Rhames
Director: Jonathan Mostow
Screenwriters: Michael Ferris and John Brancato
Producers: David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman and Max Handelman
Genre: Science Fiction Thriller
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, disturbing images, language, sexuality and a drug-related scene.
Running time: 98 min.
Release date: September 25, 2009

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