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Movie Review: Surrogates

September 25, 2009

By Shannon

surrogatesOkay, I think I have the studios figured out.  The recent trend toward not screening a movie or screening it too late for reviewing press to make deadline must be the studios’ clever attempt at using  reverse-psychology.  We (reviewers) are conditioned to believe that any time a movie is not screened or screened last minute, that there must be some horrible problem plaguing the movie, hence their unwillingness to pre-screen it. Such was the case with Surrogates when I saw it last night.  Bracing myself for a stinkbomb, I emerged from screening and proclaimed to the studio rep, “It was not terrible. I think I kind of liked it.”  Hardly a ringing endorsement, to be sure, but I think that is part of their strategy;  set the expectation bar so low that when the movie is not horrible the viewer will be delighted by this welcome surprise. 

Surrogates could have been one hell of a movie had it’s intriguing premise been well executed. Despite the film’s flaws, I found it thought-provoking enough that I would definitely recommend it to fans of the sci-fi genre or Bruce Willis.  I absolutely love a movie that makes me think, and this one had my head swimming with the ethical implications of bio-medical research, the prevalence of electronic media in our lives, and our (as a society) startling retreat from one-on-one human interaction.  Any movie that makes me take pause to analyze the message is worthy of a recommendation in my book.

Some may find the story line confusing, but if you pay attention, you can decipher it.  In the not-so-distant future, humans have become so lazy/paranoid/apathetic that almost everyone owns a “surrogate” which is a robotic rendition of their-self.   These robots literally lead your life for you, and are controlled by you.  Humans stay plugged into a “stem chair” and view their surrogates activities via a headset from the safety and comfort of their own home.  This ensures  the ultimate insulated life;   no worry about pain or danger, physical or emotional.  Advertisements à la Minority Report play on the insecurities of parents by hawking surrogates for their children, and like an online avatar, you can create the physical appearance that you want to interact through with the rest of the world.  This ensures a smooth countenance and rockin’ bod throughout your lifetime.

FBI detective Greer (Bruce Willis, still handily kicking some ass) and his partner Peters (Radha Mitchell sporting one of the aforementioned rockin’ bods) are investigating a string of  troubling murders, in which  the “owners” of surrogates are being killed at the precise moment that their surrogate is destroyed.  Despite fail-safes put in place, the owners are found in their stem chairs with liquefied brains.  Greer and Peters must discover who has found out a way to destroy “owners” via their surrogates, and consequently uncover a sinister conspiracy much greater than they anticipated.

There is quite a bit to like in Surrogates.  Bruce Willis is perfectly cast, and a pleasure to watch.  Don’t worry, the dreadful wig and waxy skin you’ve seen in the trailers don’t stick around for the duration.  Radha Mitchell plays the sexy sidekick well, and she is beautiful enough to pull off her role with ease.  Ving Rhames plays a creepy cult-leader named the prophet, who leads the Dread Colony, a “humans only” zone.  James Cromwell plays the mastermind behind VSI, the company that created surrogates in the first place.  Rosamund Pike is captivating as Greer’s doll-like wife, portrayed with big hair, big breasts, beautiful skin, and all the other conventions of the perfect woman.

The movie is based on the graphic novel The Surrogates by Robert Venditti, and the opening scenes convey that feel very well.  The action scenes were plot driven, interesting, and realistic.  There are some humorous moments, in particular when an owner does like the way a conversation is going, they just shut down their surrogate mid-sentence, fully avoiding anything that might actually lead to conflict.  It reminded me of a petulant child refusing to speak when they don’t get their way.

What the movie does most deftly, though, is cast a disparaging eye  toward technology.  More specifically, where it is leading us, and how it slowly dehumanizes us.  Indeed, a rather hokey subplot involves Willis’ character’s struggle with his own humanity, and the definition of what it means to be human.  Point taken.  I loved seeing  startling the contrast between the surrogates perfect physical appearance and the actual  ”owners” appearance.  Owners  look like meth addicts with their mottled skin and sunken eyes, and are decades older than their plastic counterparts.  No one sets foot outside their houses (no need to, your surrogate does it for you) and when Greer is forced to do so, he has a full-blown panic attack, so incapable he is of any interaction.

Lest you think this movie is too far-fetched, think about how we are inching closer to this every day.  People prefer their WOW online persona to their real selves, and I have no doubt if this technology were available, quite a few would already be using it.  Which prompts the question, just because the technology is available, does that mean that we should use it?  It’s a slippery slope.  We already see people much more inclined to speak to each other on twitter and facebook instead of face to face.  We also see the increasing laziness in our society.  Surrogates would allow for the ultimate couch potato experience, and I shudder to think how many people would be delighted with this option.  So, as you can see, this movie made me think about a lot of things.

That being said, it has some flaws.  The  subplot with Greer and his inability to connect with his (real) wife makes the ending way too convenient.  The story could have been cleaned up a lot. Several audience members seemed hopelessly lost.

The film borrows liberally (particularly in set design and look) from Blade Runner, The Terminator, Minority Report, and Total Recall. Due to unfortunate timing, it will draw inevitable comparisons to this summer’s District 9.  However, you just might be pleasantly surprised.

Rating 7.5/10


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