A film review by Craig J. Koban October 7, 2009


2009, PG-13, 88 mins.

Thomas Greer: Bruce Willis / Jennifer Peters: Radha Mitchell / Maggie Greer: Rosamund Pike / Andrew Stone: Boris Kodjoe / Young Canter: James Francis Ginty / Dr. Lionel Canter: James  Cromwell / The Prophet: Ving Rhames / Strickland: Jack Noseworthy / Bobby: Devin Ratray / Colonel Brendon: Michael Cudlit

Directed by Directed by Jonathan Mostow / Screenplay by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, based on the graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele.

SURROGATES is a would-be thoughtful and contemplative sci-fi film that has an ingenious premise that never manages to pay off in any meaningful way.  On top of that, it left me asking far, far too many questions about its underlining premise all the way through its remarkably sparse 88-minute running time.  I often detest when films shamelessly pander down to audiences by explaining everything that transpires on screen: some things are best left unspecified.  Even though SURROGATES does a fairly decent job of establishing its futuristic world, it nevertheless does a really lousy job of explaining it. 

The film – adapted by Michael Ferris and John Brancato (who penned this year’s underrated TERMINATOR: SALVATION), based on a five issue comic book limited series by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele – does have some truly intriguing ideas and themes: SURROGATES explores the notion that technology has all but eroded humanity’s ties with one another.  The future of the film chronicles how incredible advancements in computer and robotic technology has allowed people to all but stay secluded within their homes, safe and secure, while they hook themselves up to elaborate computer VR machines that, in turn, allow them to control robotic avatars (which look physically like their operators, but much more perfectly idealized).  These robots, or “surrogates,” walk, talk, and act just like their flesh and blood controllers back home, but they have none of the physical flaws of the operators.  Even if a surrogate is killed or destroyed, the human controlling them still remains alive.  Sweet!

Clearly, there is nothing altogether new and revelatory about these ideas: the notion that machines have dominated all facets of life on Earth certainly has present day implications, not to mention that it has been the stuff of sci-fi lore for decades.  SURROGATES reminded me considerably of the Wachowski Brothers’ MATRIX films, with some obvious tweaks: In THE MATRIX people were in a virtual reality dream world concocted by intelligent machines that have enslaved them in the post-apocalyptic future whereas in SURROGATES people willfully inhabit tangible cyborg duplicates of themselves to carry out all of their day-to-day activities. 

The problem with the premise of SURROGATES is certainly not a lack of ambition or creativity, but rather with how it’s fleshed out.  A movie that ponders the philosophical nature of how technology has crossed boundaries to the point of totally overriding what makes us human is definitely worthy of investigation.  Moreover, SURROGATES does a respectable job of showing how society reaches the point in the future where people can plug into their mechanical doppelgangers.  Unfortunately, the film never really plausibly grounds its future: once you being to ask questions about all of the massive loopholes in logic regarding the surrogates themselves, then the level of immersion in the film is all but eroded.  SURROGATES begins smartly, descends foolishly, and then wraps up too quickly and hastily.  The manner it abandons the deeper and compelling issues underscoring its premise and story and instead devolves into a routine and monotonous action picture without much logic and flow is distressing.  

As the film begins we see faux-documentary clips giving us a history of surrogate technology (a stylistic choice that seems quite derivative of this summer’s DISTRICT 9, which did a substantially better job of giving its extraordinary story a loose and improvisation feel).  Scientists and scholars reveal the 14-year history of how we got to the present, which, in the film’s case, is the future (granted, judging by the set design, art direction, and props, this future feels conveniently like the present).  We learn of how surrogate robots were envisioned, created, and then perfected, followed by some exposition on how the technology became so popular, widely available, and cherished that the Supreme Court passed a low that allowed people to legally become couch potatoes: that is, they gave people the right to be able to plug into their surrogates and use them for whatever purposes they see fit, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  Within years of the universal use of surrogates by the population of earth, we learn that crime, racism, and hatred has all but eroded (more on that soon) and people live in a state of euphoric bliss and happiness….at least until all hell breaks loose. 

Enter Greer (Bruce Willis, stalwart and headstrong here) and Peters (the beautiful Radha Mitchell), two FBI agents that are investigating a double homicide during which two surrogates were not only destroyed, but also had their two handlers killed in the process.  Now, I know what you’re thinking, this is not possible!  Crime and murder does not exist in this utopian future, not to mention that it has been established that users cannot be killed when they surrogates perish (because of a failsafe mechanism).  Yet, the human controllers are killed, which means that something very strange is afoot.  Needless to say, Greer and Peters need answers and they seek out the creator of surrogates themselves, Canter (James Cromwell, horribly underused here) who just happens to be the father of one of the victims.   

Of course, Canter thinks that the corporation he created (but no longer is a part of) is largely to blame, but he also has his suspicions of a resistance leader know as The Prophet (Ving Rhames, in a horribly hammy and ridiculous performance) that leads a group of non-surrogate humans that live in ghettoized reservations where technology is not allowed: they also feel that using robots to live one's life is an abomination against God.  Through a series of events – while coasting through both the surrogate population and the reservations areas where surrogates are banned – Greer manages to get his surrogate destroyed, which is really inconvenient.  It’s really inconvenient because his wife (the luminous Rosamund Pike) wants to have nothing to do with the older, flabbier, and less attractive human husband.  It’s becomes really, really inconvenient for Greer when he decides to disobey all common sense – and the orders of his superiors – and ventures into the world as himself to find the answers once and for all. 

One thing that SURROGATES does well is that it maintains a fast-paced tempo through and through: the film is never boring as a murder mystery thriller.  Also, the film’s premise – which is eerily similar to another sci-fi flick from this month, the horrendous GAMER – offers much in the way of captivating speculation.  The film dishes out some sobering parallels to how people today have become increasing displaced from one another in lieu of communicating via cell phones, text messaging, and chat rooms.  The direction of the film – by Jonathon Mostow, who made the quite decent TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES and U-571 – has a precision and simplicity that far too many recent action thrillers lack.  Lastly, the visual effects work in the film is thoroughly impressive: The CGI tricks utilized here to create the look of the surrogates is creepy, but effective: Willis’ robot double, for example, is obviously played by the star, but he has been given a computer generated face lift (along with a really bad wig) to make himself look 25 years younger, but not altogether human looking, which I guess is the point. 

Alas, the many problems with SURROGATES quickly begins to override any sense of the film’s worth.  The overall detective storyline and mystery loses a considerable amount of urgency and interest, especially when one can see exactly who the perpetrator is right from the very beginning (one of the film’s would-be shocking reveals is as anti-climactic and predictable as they come).  Then there are the insurmountable plot holes and polarizing conundrums involving the surrogates themselves.  How, for example, could using surrogates end racism, crime, and murder, seeing as the people behind the robots speak and act through them?  Am I to assume that a cold-blooded bigot or criminal mastermind would never perpetrate any wrongdoing while jacked into their surrogate?  Not likely.  And couldn't a surrogate just walk into the home of a human operator and kill them?  Seems easy enough.. 

Furthermore, surrogates themselves look like the most ubiquitous technological toy on the planet: everyone seems to have one.  Yet, how could something that would appear to cost an unfathomably amount of money be readily available and affordable to everyone, rich and poor alike?  Beats me.  And how would actively living through your surrogate be healthier than experiencing the outside world yourself?  Every user in this film, since they essentially sit in their reclined chairs hooked up to their robots all day long, should be grossly obese and barely able to walk, seeing as they get no exercise and nutrition.  And as for biology, if people live through their surrogates all the time, when do they find time to eat, drink, or go to the washroom during the day?  It must be really hard to be lay in a surrogate chair at home 18 hours a day and then sleep in bed 7 or 8 hours and then repeat the process daily for years. 

And…God help me…but how does surrogate sex work?  I mean…really?  Early in the film we see two surrogates hook up and in the beginning stages of foreplay.  The human operators obviously see what they see and can interact, but…uh…how does the mechanics of intercourse work here?  And how about erotic stimulation?  The surrogates – whom all have the same working exterior parts of their human companions – are essentially made up of metal and oil-like fluids inside, but do they actually have sex with one another and exchange bodily or mechanical fluids?  Or, is it just the human operators that experience the pleasure?  Yuck…does this mean that when the male operator…well…reaches…you know...climax…then do they…you know…mess all over themselves while jacked in? 

And then there is the ending of the film, which – S-P-O-I-L-E-R   W-A-R-N-I-N-G – leaves one character making a choice that stops all of the surrogates all over the world from working with the instant touch of a button, with no harm being done to their human operators.  Why does he do this?  Because he, like Neo in THE MATRIX, wants to free humanity from the shackles of technology.  Um…okay…but…wouldn’t he be killing hundreds of thousands of people in the process?  This means that every human patient in the world being operated on by a surrogate surgeon would be killed.  All of the airplanes, cars, etc. being operated by surrogates would crash land into buildings, probably injuring or killing human handlers that live in them while also causing an incalculably amount of property damage. 

See what I am getting at?  SURROGATES has a nifty idea that is woefully underdeveloped and not thought through or nourished well enough.   It comes off almost like a preliminary sketch more than a full-fledged painting.  More obviously, SURROGATES is trying to be in the thinking man’s vein of Phillip K. Dyck inspired science fiction, but it is so undone by the limitations, inconsistencies, and head-shaking incredulities of its premise that I became less involved with it and more spiteful of it as it progressed.  Great escapist sci-fi should transport viewers to the point where you never question the veracity of its world; this one listlessly makes viewers mercilessly pick it apart beyond repair. 

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