Surrogates (2009) / Sci Fi-Thriller
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, language, sexuality and a drug-related scene
Running time: 104 min.
Cast: Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, James Cromwell, Ving Rhames, Boris Kodjoe, James Francis Ginty
Director: Jonathan Mostow
Screenplay: Michael Ferris, John D. Brancato (based on the comic book by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldelle)
Surrogates is based on Robert Venditti's comic book miniseries from 2005, which depicts a futuristic society in which the military has conducted wars through the use of "surrogates", or humanoid robots that are fully controlled by human hosts remotely. As the technology for these surrogates becomes more sophisticated, the concept erupts onto the public market, and the corporation responsible for the idea, VSI, becomes the world industry leader, giving everyone in the world the option to live their lives with all of the physical traits they've always desired. People can sit at home while their attractive virtual selves traverse through the real world -- a world where everyone else is attractive, fit, and violent crime has all but been completely eliminated as these robots cause no physical harm to the hosts, who are safely secluded away in their private abodes.
It doesn't take deep thought to realize that "Surrogates' is, as a story, a metaphor for how millions, if not billions of people have an alternate persona online who happens to be an idealized form of themselves. We only use the best pictures of ourselves in our social networking profiles, we use idealized characters when in multiplayer online role playing games ("Second Life" comes immediately to mind), and some people even create phony personas by which to engage in more personal interactivity with others online who might not give them the time of day if they were to see the person behind the appealing but false pictures.
The story goes a step further with the attraction for living out the ideal life by allowing people to even transplant a virtual self into their real world existence, leaving their flawed bodies and interactivity with other people shrouded behind a persona that is attractive to others and impervious to harm. Bruce Willis (Planet Terror, Live Free or Die Hard) plays Tom Greer, an FBI Agent in the year 2017 investigating a rare murder case involving the son of Lionel Canter (Cromwell, W.), the inventive genius who originally created the surrogates, now disassociated from the company. Although humans had been thought to be impervious to harm that befall their surrogates, it appears that a new type of energy-based gun can kill humans when their surrogates are blasted. Is it part of a plot against Canter? Is it part of a scheme spun forth by an anti-surrogate rebel named Prophet? Is it a cover-up for military actions using the surrogates as weapons of warfare? Greer aims to get to the bottom of things, and without use of his surrogate, he's putting his very life on the line to do so.
Such heady concepts get lost under what director Jonathan Mostow (Terminator 3, U-571) and the screenwriting team of Ferris and Brancato (Terminator Salvation, Catwoman) really want to do with the somber Blade Runner-ish premise, and that's to make a sci fi/action/thriller. As an action flick, it isn't awful, but it is rather routine most of the time, and some of the special effects, make-up and design work look more at home in a semi-comic romp than in the dramatic setting that this film carries forth. It's not nearly fun enough to be enjoyable action/thriller and not nearly deep enough to be engaging as satirical science fiction, leaving it stuck between stations that might have been successful had the filmmakers decided from the get-go what they'd like to do with the intriguing premise.
Surrogates aims low with the high-concept material, such that those who are only expecting some decent action and a few nifty concepts might consider it a decent guilty pleasure akin to the fondness they feel regarding a trashy but occasionally clever B-movie. There are times when the film dabbles in material that intrigues, such as Greer's inability to see his wife Maggie (Pike, Fracture) except through her surrogate, which she finds immensely more preferable and liberating to her own flawed, aged self, especially as she continues to grieve over the death of their child. However, these possibilities remain mostly unexplored in favor of the next thrilling confrontation or explosive chase scene.
I don't expect every science fiction film to play as erudite as Kairo, which featured a similar theme of people lost to life due to their increasing dependence on technology, or as visually engaging as The Matrix, which had similar themes of alternate selves powered by people linked in through their minds, but Surrogates still disappoints because it is such a good concept for an original movie that it shouldn't go to waste. It often looks like most of the budget went to securing star Bruce Willis, leaving little left for special effects that are crucial to the believability and appeal of the surrogate premise. Without Willis's presence, Surrogates would look like a pilot for a new TV series rather than a major theatrical release.
Surrogates is a good science fiction idea that is either too shallow and underdeveloped to provide the depth necessary to make a lasting impression, or it's a case of a rich and deep story that had been stripped away of all of its high concepts due to lack of budget, studio meddling, and a director who prefers big action sequences over scenes of talking heads. Where is the vision? Not unwatchable but often boring, Surrogates may hold the interest of those accustomed to watching made-for-basic-cable cheapie science fiction flicks, but those expecting the next Minority Report may find themselves restlessly wondering how a 90 minute movie can seem like three hours. Like the surrogates at the heart of the film, it's certainly animated, but without the meat, guts, heart or original thought, Surrogates never amounts to existing as anything other than a good-looking pretender.
©2009, 2010 Vince Leo