Now Playing: ‘Surrogates’ explores our technological obsession

26 Sep

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September 26th, 2009–

cinemagrade b-In the new Bruce Willis techno-thriller Surrogates, humanity’s collective desire for ease, comfort and convenience prove to be its undoing.   Adapted from the graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, Surrogates shows us a future where our reliance on technology has become the ultimate crutch. Instead of a dreary, rain-soaked dystopia, the world of the film is a bright, shiny, peaceful place. From a material and cultural standpoint, everything looks like sunshine and kittens. Something is missing though.

When brilliant tech-developer Joseph Canter creates the concept of robotic avatars that look like perfect replicas of human beings, he gives the world an out from pain, misery and social interaction. 97% of the population choose to engage the world from a reclining chair while their surrogates go to work, party and explore their owners most lavish interior desires. Through this premise, the film broaches the very relevant and topical issues of technological dependence and our current cultural obsession with vicarious thrills and detached experience. Surrogates gives its weekend action audience the opportunity to do some Luddite finger-wagging while enjoying their mega-tub of popcorn and twittering about how cool it is that Bruce Willis just drove his car through a herd of robotic people.

Depending on your perspective, Jonathan Mostow’s action-heavy film will either be ultimately frustrating or simply disposable. The central idea is a gem, and for the first twenty minutes or so Surrogates really sells its haunting vision of humanity retreating into itself. Visually, the future setting is familiar with only a handful of structurally diverse details; it bears a strong resemblance to the worlds of I, Robot, The Sixth Day or The Island where everything looks like our present reality, only with more neon. What works as both science fiction and as an effective on-screen presence are the surrogates themselves. While some operators choose robotic visages different from theirs—one obese bachelor goes out regularly in a 20-something hot blonde female model–most wear their own likenesses. The only key difference is that the surrogates never age, scar, get sick or have dark circles under their eyes.

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When someone starts killing operators by disabling their surrogates, the company that invented the technology begins to panic and calls in FBI agent Greer (Willis) to investigate the murder. The assassin was targeting Canter (James Cromwell) but murdered his son by accident because the boy was wearing one of Canter’s surrogates. Now, a new and dangerous weapon is out there, and it may have fallen into the hands of the surrogate-hating Prophet (an oddly dreadlocked and moo-moo wearing Ving Rhames). Prophet and his followers shun this new facet of humanity and live on rustic reservations outside of modern society. While tracking the murderer, Greer’s surrogate is damaged beyond all repair and the man must get out of his chair and enter the real world for the first time in years.

The special effects and make-up tricks used to transform actors like Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell and Boris Kojoe  into creepy artificial versions of themselves is amazingly effective. It’s extremely eerie to realize that Greer and his partner Peters (Mitchell) are solving the film’s central mystery in their surrogate form. Scenes where they  interrogate people in stilted, faux tough-cop tones while no one else bats an eye feel purposefully awkward. It’s like watching Ken and Barbie trying to put on a high-school production of, well….a Bruce Willis action movie. When the acting, set design and fx are set to this task of making the future world spring to life, Surrogates approaches the echelon of great thinking-man’s (or woman’s) sci-fi. When it gives up on that and relies upon unconvincing and choppy action set pieces it loses steam immediately.

The script is the real culprit. After introducing the audience to a thought-provoking and prescient concept, it settles for a by-the-numbers potboiler where the outcome is easily evident to anyone whose every seen at least one episode of CSI. This is a shame, because it means that much of the entertainment value to be had in the film comes not from the narrative or the action scenes–which serve no purpose other than to meet a demographic need—but from the smaller side details and the issues raised. To point, the film is more interesting when we are thinking about it later than when we are watching it. Don’t get me wrong, as a popcorn flick it works well enough but this is a tragic waste of a set-up that could have been truly great. The fact that Bruce Willis’ performance teases what a better version could have looked like is only more frustrating.

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Willis’ Greer is the best part of the movie and it’s clear that Mostow has designed it that way. He isn’t just playing Bruce Willis, he’s channeling the grieving, broken heroes of past films like The Sixth Sense and Twelve Monkeys and his character is at the very heart of the story both intellectually and emotionally. Greer and his wife, played by Rosamund Pike, lost a child and in their emotional anguish they have cut themselves off from each other. Having surrogates has only enlarged that gulf and Pike hits some truly scary notes as the facsimile of a woman who isn’t just hiding anymore but has become trapped in this easy escape.

 Willis’ avatar has all of the superhuman qualities that John McClane values but Bruce gets the most mileage out of the character in the second half when Greer unplugs and slowly reenters society. The film is at its most intriguing and intelligent during these sequences.  Human operator bodies are in poor condition, and Greer’s is no exception: his face is tired and drawn, skin pale and eyes dark and staring. I was surprised by the depth of feeling that Willis gives the agent, transforming him into an entity that has evolved beyond the simple genre needs of the film he finds himself in.    

I enjoyed Surrogates as a matinee entertainment and was pleased to find that it had a certain degree of substance. However, the format the film utilizes is the wrong one; this particular story is better suited to a psychological drama or a low-budget character piece, not a mega-budget explosion fest. Don’t get me wrong, I loved watching Radha Mitchell do a javelin throw with a parking meter, but those elements detract from the rest here. I imagine a director like Stanley Kubrick or even 1970s era George Lucas could have created something really special out of The Surrogates. Some modern directors like Aaronofsky, Fincher and even Mann could have done the same. There are still intriguing pieces here but they are only tantalizing echoes of what might have been. Willis, however, is superb and his empathetic performance drives home the films theme of genuine human feeling in a world full of artificiality.

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One Response to “Now Playing: ‘Surrogates’ explores our technological obsession”

  1. hagiblog September 29, 2009 at 9:59 pm #

    Ohhh, 70’s era Lucas, that would have been cool to see. I liked this movie for what it was, an action flick, but hated the fact that it’s great idea wasn’t explored and could have been so much more.

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