Directed by: Jonathan Mostow
Written by: Michael Ferris and John Brancato (screenplay), Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele (graphic novel)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, James Cromwell, Rosamund Pike, Ving Rhames, Boris Kodjoe
It’s been a pretty solid year for science-fiction films thus far, with movies like Moon, District 9 and Watchmen all raising the bar for thoughtful futuristic tales on the big screen in one way or another. While this is great news for moviegoers, it’s unfortunate for a filmmaker who is trying to put together a big budget action/sci-fi flick later in the year that has any hope of measuring up.
Case in point: Surrogates director Jonathan Mostow, who finds himself faced with the unenviable task of following all of the aforementioned films, in addition to a whole summer’s worth of massive special effects blockbusters. On the one hand, he has the advantage of Mr. Bruce Willis in the lead role, and an intriguing concept based on a graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele. On the other hand, he’s cursed with a script by the writers of Catwoman and Terminator Salvation, and a questionable supporting cast. Can Surrogates possibly keep the sci-fi streak alive?
This movie asks us to imagine a world where the majority of the population has given up face-to-face interaction with their fellow humans, and instead chosen to hide behind realistic-looking, thought-controlled robots known as “surrogates”, which carry out their daily routines for them. Although surrogates were originally created to allow disabled people to lead normal lives, they eventually go mainstream. A select few choose to “keep it real”, however, avoiding surrogacy on the basis of moral grounds, with some even banding together as a cult-like organization to try and put a stop to it once and for all.
Things get a bit sticky when a suspected terrorist group creates a weapon that can not only disable a surrogate, but also kill its operator. Bruce Willis plays an FBI agent who is investigating the series of murders, but when his own surrogate is targeted by the killers, he finds himself forced to continue the investigation in his own skin, despite all the risks.
In an opening sequence reminiscent of District 9, Mostow mixes fake news footage and interviews in order to establish the invention of surrogates and their role in the world. Early on, I was impressed by the level of believability that they lend to the premise. A lot of the applications of the surrogates seem perfectly reasonable, whether it’s working from home, changing your physical appearance on a whim, or going to war without human casualties, these all seem like precisely the kind of things we would eventually use robots for. The specifics of how the surrogates actually work also make sense for the most part; you put on goggles and a helmet and lie back in a chair in order to control it, but when you step away to eat or take a bathroom break, your surrogate gets put on pause. The process is remarkably similar to how many of us currently sit in front of the computer all day long… is your mind blown yet?
Despite the interesting backdrop, however, the movie is ultimately not so concerned with all the complex ways that this technology might change society, and what little commentary it does offer up is stale and predictable. Bruce Willis’ wife (played by Rosamund Pike) is addicted to her surrogate and ashamed of her real body. He claims they don’t see each other enough, but she insists that they’re always together while operating their surrogates. “It’s not the same,” he says.
It turns out that the reason she is so withdrawn is because their son died a few years back (because her character really needed that extra motivation). To make the situation even more cliched, she also engages in some sort of weird futuristic drug that involves shocking your surrogate in order to get high. Not only does this look remarkably lame, but apparently the act is referred to as “jackin'”. Sadly, I found myself flashing back to Neveldine and Taylor’s Gamer quite a bit during this film, which is not a good thing. Every single real human in the movie is either fat, ugly or decrepit (or all of the above), and while I can understand letting your real body go when you have a surrogate to rely on, surely there must be a few average-looking people in the mix?
With the director of U-571 and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines at the helm, you would think there would at least be some decent action scenes to look forward to. The truth is, the majority of the film is a high-tech murder mystery in the vein of I, Robot. There are really only two major action sequences in the film, and while the first one is entertaining enough, the second is a superhuman car-hopping chase that was beaten to the punch by G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. The action scenes were also plagued by choppy editing, making everything feel oddly disconnected.
Visually the movie is a bit gaudy, but some of the effects were well executed. For once someone has found a good use for the creepy digital anti-aging technology that we’ve seen in such movies as X-Men: The Last Stand. The surrogates themselves look shiny and rubbery, and when combined with cold, robotic performances from the supporting cast, they definitely have an eerie look that is just slightly off from regular humans.
Bruce Willis shows moments of being able to hold the movie together with his gruff resolve and a couple of ridiculous one-liners but it ultimately falls apart because it just takes itself too seriously. The dramatic elements are so cliched and laughable, and on top of that, the movie lays claim to perhaps the most contrived suspense-generating twist ever. All I’ll say is that the one thing that standing between life and death for millions of people was the press of a Shift button. It’s pretty amazing.
At an 88-minute running time, Surrogates is short and breezy, but considering all the potential that was there, I would have much rather seen them take an extra half-hour to add some depth (or more action). Hardcore sci-fi geeks will probably be willing to forgive a lot of the artifice in this movie just to explore some of the ideas, and I have to admit that it does spark some cool discussions about what the future may hold. Still, beyond this fascinating future world, the characters and the plot are just so tired, and the action is not nearly exciting enough to offset all the eye rolling. I know I’ve been spoiled by movies like District 9 recently, but what can I say? I’d rather be jackin’. — Sean
Recommended If You Like: I, Robot, Gamer, A.I.