– Summary –
Director : Jonathan Mostow
Year Of Release : 2009
Principal Cast : Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Ving Rhames, James Cromwell, Rosamund Pike, Jack Noseworthy, Boris Kodjoe, James Francis Ginty, Trevor Donovan, Michael Cudlitz, Devin Ratray.
Approx Running Time : 89 Minutes
Synopsis: In the future, mankind has come to depend on robotic simulants to do all the work for us, and our real bodies are consigned to chairs plugging us into an unreal world. When a weapon is discovered that can kill the “surrogate” humans, and by extension the users themselves, a world-weary cop must buck the system to uncover the truth and stop the death of billions.
What we think : Great concept, awesome effects and production design, Surrogates is an aloof and lacklustre sci-fi effort starring the increasingly haggard Bruce Willis.
I’ve had a few days to think about this film now, since I watched it, and I’ve come to the conclusion that Surrogates is an opportunity missed. I was initially impressed, I’ll admit, but after soaking up what Surrogates had to say, I think it’s a film which is, sadly, more style over substance. The concept of humanity using avatars to get through life has been covered before, many times, including recent films like Gamer and Avatar, is one that I think has become more pertinent in recent years with the predominance of the internet and iPhones, Facebook and MySpace. Surrogates combines the robotic stylings of I, Robot and the human/machine interactivity of Gamer, and gives us a brave new world where human interaction is limited to synthetic human-looking robots linked to their real users, “surrogate” humans, if you will.
In the not too distant future, a robotic human replacement has pretty much wiped out all real interaction between people. Humanity, in the case of Surrogates, has replaced itself with robotic fantasy versions of itself, near indestructible facsimiles which perform our tasks for us, without their operators ever leaving home. Each surrogate human, known colloquially as a “surry”, is operated via mental link with a human operator lying on a specially designed bed, effectively asleep. One surrogate robot for one human operator, and apparently non-interchangeable. Or so you’d think. When the young son of surrogate inventor Dr Lionel Canter (James Cromwell phoning it in) is killed by a mysterious weapon, FBI agents Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) and Jennifer Peters (Australia’s own Radha Mitchell) are sent in to investigate. Due to the infallibility of surrogates, and the fact that humanity has overcome crime because of it, murder and violent crime is almost non-existant in the world. So the “killing” of a surrogate is particularly strange. Further investigation by Greer and Peters finds that the operator of the surrogate has also been killed, something thought to be impossible, due to the number of failsafe mechanisms between surrogate and operator, things begin to take on a sinister turn. Greer, who’s own personal life isn’t exactly a bed of roses (his wife, Maggie (Rosamund Pike) exists almost entirely as her surrogate, and her real self never appears outside of her bedroom, due to some unexplained personal tragedy) must buck the system, and work without his own surrogate to solve the case. As with most utopian societies, there is a faction which doesn’t believe in the cause, and so, there exists outside of the cities massive “dread zones”, where surrogates are forbidden and technology is effectively banned. The leader of the dread cutlure is a man known only as The Prophet (Ving Rhames in bizarre rasta getup), who’s existence is the bane of the surrogate world’s way of life. So when he gets his hands on a weapon capable of destroying the very thing they constantly rail against, the Prophet steps up the campaign to see all surrogate life destroyed. Problem for Tom Greer in all this, is that somebody else is working against them all to revert humanity to it’s pre-surrogate lifestyle, something nobody really wants considering our dependency on them has grown so complete.
There’s something critical missing from Surrogates that makes it merely an average film event. Director Jonathan Mostow has, until now, consistently put out a decent body of work, from Breakdown’s Hitchcockian overtones to U571’s riffing on Das Boot; Mostow has developed his directorial prowess to become quite a decent gun-for-hire. His entry into the Terminator franchise, Rise Of The Machines, wasn’t all that bad. He can handle the big action sequences, and knows how to work with effects. Mostow isn’t the problem here. What about Bruce Willis, the larger than life action star again cast as the downtrodden and sullen agent of the law? Bruce isn’t exactly setting the world alight here (and let’s face it, there’s not a lot he’s done in the last decade that’s put him in the same league as his greatest Die Hard years), his performance is particularly monotonous, lacking charisma or empathy in his quest to see justice done. That steely eyed glare comes in for a workout occasionally when the action heats up, but underneath the polished, shiny exterior of the surrogate-Bruce, waxy and shiny, there’s no truth to the character. Willis isn’t capable of the tortured cop routine any more than he was capable of the tortured Average Joe in Unbreakable, and by the end of Surrogates you wanted to shake him to make him smile. Radha Mitchell, whose star is gradually starting to rise in Hollywood (anybody who hasn’t seen her in Woody Allen’s Melinda & Melinda should do so to see her in blazing action!) does a perfunctory, if somewhat lifeless job, as Willis’ befuzzled partner. Mitchell isn’t given anything really meaty in her role, and it’s a shame, because I felt it was a waste of her talent. Ving Rhames, in one of the most ridiculous hairpieces ever worn on a major motion picture, must surely wish he’d stuck to appearances in Tarantino flicks after this. One wonders if he knew what contract he was signing at the time, because rubbish like this is simply beneath him. His “Prophet” character is a caricature of many shaman-esque creations, a pretentious syllable hogger with designs of grandeur and the inability to achieve them.
Even the normally wonderful James Cromwell, whose work I have admired for years, is underdone here. Cromwell isn’t given much to work with, his father figure character a shadow of potential drifting lifelessly across the screen. Cromwell doesn’t even appear to want to act in this, his performance seems so breathlessly hysterical. It’s a performance he won’t want put up on the Oscar Obituaries when the time comes, that’s for sure. So what is it about Surrogates that doesn’t work, or at least, makes this film simply a time waster rather than a genuinely entertaining piece of sci-fi relevance?
After much thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that the film is so bereft of anything resembling charm or wit, so layered with social finger-pointing that the average audience simply shrugs and says “so what?”. Elements of this film, which, I might add, is drawn from the comic book series of the same name, have been visited in other, better films. The Matrix, in particular, dealt with a humanity plugged into a system that had us in its thrall, much the same way here that humanity is so lost in its own selfishness to maintain the façade of perfection, we use pretend people rather than the real thing. The surrogate creations can do all kinds of superhuman things, echoing Neo’s own superman styled existence in the Matrix. I, Robot, which I touched upon earlier, is another echo through this film’s narrative: the surrogates have a similar physicality to the robots of that Will Smith starrer, and the battle to control them if they go rogue is again echoed in the subtle reliance we put on them as a species. Heck, even Wall-E, the great Pixar film, touched on points about humanity slipping into the “machines will do everything for us” routine, whereby the human race had grown fat and slovenly, incapable of real interpersonal relationships save that achieved via computer screen. Much like Facebook. The dichotomy of humanity’s reliance on machines, and consequently their reliance on us, is an issue Surrogates tries to handle, but simply can’t. Heck, even Spielberg did this better in the fanboy derided AI. Indeed, the morals behind Surrogates are so blunt and brutally delivered, the end result is a crazy mix of effects and half-cooked intellectualism. To wit: the narrative cannot sustain intellectual storytelling while trying to give us a comic-book thrill ride. And while normally Jonathan Mostow is capable of a thrill ride, with Surrogates, the action is dreadfully handled.
I don’t think I’ve seen much worse action staging on a major film like this in the last, what, ten years? The chase sequence, where Greer pursues a fugitive human through the dread zone, is frenetically lacklustre, a sense of genuine tension utterly missing from proceedings. It’s uninspiring, and the garrulous Bruce Willis doesn’t do us any favours by snarling throughout the entire thing. Major action set-pieces are handled rather perfunctorily, without the joie de vivre or chutzpah Mostow is renowned for. The film’s production value cannot be underestimated, however. The effects, both digital and practical, are astoundingly well done. The surrogate de-aging undergone by the cast (and the incredibly haggard Willis especially) is nothing short of astonishing to witness. The robot effects, the digital work done here, is first rate, as you’d expect from a film with an $US80m budget. But all the effects and clever stuff in the world won’t fix a story we just don’t care about. It’s not like Surrogates is trying to tell us anything new, either, which is probably half the battle. Having a second-hand story told with such polish, but lacking even a coherent motivation or character arc, just makes us want it to end sooner. The script is free from pesky things like humour or character development, although I have to say the relationship between Willis and his on-screen wife is well handled, for the most part. Mostow understands that we don’t need to know everything about what went wrong to make this an interesting relationship, but Willis simply isn’t up to anything more than glaring, glowering, and bashing. Depth of character isn’t his strong suit, much like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s command of the English language.
There’s probably plenty more I could mention about why I didn’t like Surrogates, cloned musical score, derivative story ideas and 2-dimensional acting notwithstanding. Richard Marvin has created a soundtrack for this film which seems eerily familiar: like he’s pinched it from another film, not that the film comes immediately to mind. The discordant strings and pulsing bass have a very familiar quality, and you get the sense this quasi-minimalist score was just thrown together at the last minute. I know it probably wasn’t, but the score isn’t enough to drag this middling film out of mediocrity. I was initially impressed with Surrogates, at least on a superficial level, but after a little thought and research into the film’s themes and ideas, realised that Surrogates really isn’t all that much new and fresh after all. In a rare case of not being able to blame the director for this effort, due to having to deal with the fact that this is a pre-published work of adaption, I’m left to think that ultimately, the story isn’t developed enough in a cinematic sense to carry the audience through like the producers obviously hoped. Which means Surrogates isn’t as intellectually stimulating as it desperately wants to be.
Ostensibly a big budget action sci-fi thriller, Surrogates is anything but any of those, other than big budget. Willis brings us the same acting we saw in The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Tears Of The Sun, and probably a couple of others I’ll think of later, which is completely inadequate for the demands this role requires. The story wobbles between melodrama and genuine social parable, but the characters lack warmth or sincerity (which, I guess, is ironic considering most of the characters are robots!) and ultimately, are audience anathema. Surrogates had potential, but I think in this instance, the potential is unfulfilled.
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