Film Review: Surrogates (2009)

Surrogates (2009)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Ving Rhames
Directed by: Jonathan Mostow
Written by: Michael Ferris and John D Brancato, based on the graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele
Rated: PG-13
Rating: 2 (out of five)Surrogates (2009)

A few years ago, Alex Proyas’s I, Robot (2004) came out.  It deconstructed Isaac Asimov’s phenomenal “I, Robot” stories and turned into an action vehicle for Will Smith.  I enjoyed the  movie but it definitely wasn’t good science fiction.  It was just good action.  That’s about the best thing I can say for Surrogates.

I have not read the graphic novel so I cannot make any comparisons in that regard.  There are some moments in the movie that are obviously painstakingly recreated from the frames of the novel.  Those are unfortunately few and far between.

14  years from now we have the technology to create and control “surrogates.”  These are lifelike androids that experience life for us while we remain back at home, lying in a pod that allows our minds to control the surrogates.  The great part of surrogates is that you get to feel everything they feel and have none of the side effects.  Sex has gone up, but STI’s have gone down.  The aging process is almost non-existent in the real world.  Surrogates don’t age, just their controllers do.  But also virtually non-existent in the real world is human connection.  There are reservations of humans — “meat bags” – where no surrogates are allowed to enter.  These havens of humanity are run by The Prophet (Rhames) who aims to restore life to it’s natural roots.

We open with a murder.  Someone on a motorcycle fires a pretty powerful weapon at two surrogates.  It causes their surrogates to fry – which isn’t new, as bullets through electronic components can cause some serious damage – but it also causes their controllers to fry as well.  The surrogate/controller who is killed is none other than the son of Dr. Cantor, the man who invented surrogates.

This sparks the first real homicide in years (surrogates kill other surrogates, people don’t kill people anymore).  Lt. Greer (Willis) and his partner (Mitchell) are brought on to solve the case.  Much is unique about it:  why did the safety mechanisms fail and cause the controller to die when the surrogate was fried?  What weapon is powerful enough to do that?  Why would someone do such a thing?  Is The Prophet involved?  They then get wrapped up in a conspiracy that takes us through to the movie’s inevitable ending.

Mostow also directed Terminator 3.  He hasn’t grown much as a director since then.  (On a funny note, I see that his next project is a re-tell of the Swiss Family Robinson – interesting change of scenery from sci-fi).  The movie is rather derivative as far as it’s production goes.  The action isn’t bold, the explosions are only “big,” the suspense is barely there.  This is true of a lot of movies that Hollywood churns out these days, and I can openly confess to liking a lot of them.  I even liked Terminator 3!  The real issue with this movie isn’t the production.  It’s the story.

Again, I haven’t read the graphic novel, and don’t intend to at this point, but the story here is what is wrong with this movie.  Re-read the paragraph above explaining the future society presented in this movie.  The one thing this story does is a great job of tantalizing us with these little, realistic details of how surrogacy has affected future society and humanity as a whole.  It only hints at it though, and only for the first few minutes as the credits roll.  It blatantly ignores, and even sometimes purposely avoids, parallels to our current society’s addiction to gadgetry and the “zoning out” it causes.  This movie is completely devoid of any social context whatsoever.  And that is it’s problem.

I’m not looking for this to be a social critique of technological advances and their effects on humanity.  I think it would have been a wrong choice to have done that.  What I’m asking for is a sense of what’s happened and the realization that this has a profound effect on how the characters would have gone about daily life.  Instead we get one single moment where Greer walks through the streets as a meat bag instead of a surrogate for the first time.

Look at District 9.  It’s not meant to be a social commentary on Apartheid, it’s not meant delve into social injustices, but because the story was borne of those conditions, it’s effects are directly presented on-screen.  I again think that it would have been the wrong choice for that film to have been a true social commentary, but at least it wasn’t afraid of the idea it projected.  Another brilliant example is Blade Runner.  The film doesn’t truly attempt to be a critique, but instead delivers us into a fully realized world that serves as it’s own critique, completely apart from what the filmmakers were filming.

A brief hint of what this movie could have been was provided by some early teaser posters.  Take a look here and here to see what I mean.

Action.  Check.  Some pretty explosions and car crashes.  Check.  A real world to set the story in?  Nope!

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwTJ7mCcFoY

Prof. Ishiguro and his “Geminoid” twin: http://www.irc.atr.jp/Geminoid/

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