REVIEW: Surrogates [2009]

“Honey, I don’t know what you are”

The first thing that came to my mind while watching Surrogates is how rushed it felt using technology that wasn’t quite ready to pull off what it was the filmmakers desired. Whereas James Cameron waited years to hone his computer systems to achieve the realism Avatar needed to succeed, the Hollywood machine appeared to say “screw it, we have to finish this thing now”. I don’t want to fault director Jonathan Mostow as he most certainly was just a hired hand here, but looking at how fake Bruce Willis’s surrogate was compared to those of Radha Mitchell and Rosamund Pike completely took me out of the movie. Here is Mister Elastic-Man running around with two dolled-up beauties, making me wonder why they didn’t computerize the women’s faces too. And then the film progressed to the point where I saw both Pike and Mitchell unplug, catching a glimpse at the actresses in the flesh. That’s when I realized how much we are already living in a world of surrogates. These two were dirtied up so much that their pristine, computer-enhanced doppelgangers actually look like their real-life counterparts when make-up and lighting is applied for other films.

You know we are living in a world of glitz and glamour when the images we project on actors is only a heightened facsimile caused by the movies. I had gotten so used to seeing the ‘pretty faces’ of Hollywood that when those pristine mugs are needed to relay the feeling of manufactured robotics, they do no such thing because they are the reality for which I’m aware. It’s a sad state of affairs and I can understand the vitriol of this film’s pure-human population abhorring the idea of living an existence from within a closed off room, watching their lives play out in front of them without consequence or fear. What was supposed to be used as recreation soon took over the world—laziness and sloth finally defeating our own humanity. In this respect, I have to give the story itself some credit, putting some big ideas onscreen and allowing for the opportunity to ask the larger questions behind the action-packed adrenaline rush the marketing machine has promoted Surrogates as. Unfortunately, this is just that—all surface and very little substance save for the underlying structure that could have made it into an intense satire, causing the world to wonder if they have let technology go too far. Those brief glimpses only make me interested in reading the graphic novel’s source material, something I’d believe goes a bit more in-depth with the politics and moral ramifications of the science.

As it stands, the film is just another Bruce Willis race against the clock to save the world flick. Humanity has all but hidden behind their machine-selves, walking the Earth protected from harm while their real bodies waste away in virtual reality chairs. Besides a few communities created in big cities, following the word of The Prophet (Ving Rhames), just the idea of walking outdoors in the flesh would cause crippling anxiety. So, when it appears that a weapon has been created, able to kill a person through its surrogate, the game has obviously changed. The original hit was aimed at the inventor of the craze itself fourteen years previously, James Cromwell’s Dr. Canter. From that botched assassination, Willis’s FBI Agent Tom Greer begins his search to find out what is happening and how to stop it before the people he loves, his partner (Mitchell) and wife (Pike), become the next fatalities since they refuse to leave the robots behind. The game continues on as we watch people inhabit the surrogates of others, identities become reversed, and see stuff get blown up. The twists and turns are obvious, but the ending is kind of perfect—even if I saw it before in the Breaking Benjamin video. I just wished the tale to get there wasn’t the dumbed-down to satisfy the lowest common denominator, (ie. Americans), version.

It was somewhat funny to see Cromwell as the father of all this technology, especially when comparing the role to his own counterpart in a similar technology takes over the world film, I, Robot. I actually enjoyed that Will Smith vehicle more than this hollow shell because it played the action and explosions with a bit more intelligence, tempering the blockbuster artifice with the science working at its back. Surrogates, on-the-other-hand, likens itself more to Minority Report, another missed opportunity to merge pithy questions of mortality and life with the box office return movie studios so covet. At times Mostow and company have tried to create a new parallel universe to our own, including some humorous paraphernalia like an Extreme Football street poster showing an athlete holding an opponents’ head in his fist. We also see the running and jumping capabilities of the machinery, adding that extra level of superhuman ability making robotic body use a drug. There isn’t even a need for heroin or meth anymore when you can electro-shock your surrogate for that extra rush.

Where the film truly missed its mark, however, is in the allusions to military implementations of the technology that go no further than planting the seed for intriguing dialogue before kicking the subplot to the curb. What about using these robots as disposable soldiers? The most thought-provoking moment for me was seeing an army grunt die on the battlefield, disconnect from his ravaged avatar, (using that word is tough now after Cameron), and plug into a new ‘GI Joe’ while his superior says be more careful, those things aren’t cheap. The issues this sequence raises could be the subject of a film by itself, especially since the current state of war has become more faceless killing than fighting a living, breathing mirror to oneself. You can argue that war has no more meaning when you aren’t on the battlefield looking the man you’re about to kill in the eye, feeling the life drain away by your own hands. Pressing a button and playing a numbers game takes all the preciousness of existence away, making it strictly good versus evil. But what if your day-to-day life were the same way? What if you walked the street through the eyes of a machine, interacting with a beautiful young woman that could in fact be a 300-pound man at home on his computer? Why couldn’t this film have concerned those issues with Willis-action as a backdrop instead of the other way around, making the film worthwhile rather than another missed opportunity to use the medium of art to spark conversation and societal change?

Surrogates 5/10 | ★ ★

[1] Bruce Willis star as Agent Greer in Touchstone Pictures’ Surrogates. © Touchstone Pictures, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo by Stephen Vaughan.
[2] Rosamund Pike as Maggie Greer and Boris Kodjoe as Anthony Stone in Touchstone Pictures’ Surrogates. © Touchstone Pictures, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo by Stephen Vaughan.


2 Thoughts to “REVIEW: Surrogates [2009]”

  1. Lauren

    Hear, hear, Jared! Well said. The story line has so much potential. I’m shaking my head. Maybe someone will make a novel out of it? Explore all the unknowns? I would read it.

  2. it’s actually based on a graphic novel that’s somewhat highly regarded, so hopefully that one goes into it all deeper than the film.

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