Thursday, October 1, 2009

Film Review: Surrogates

this picture isn't actually from surrogates, but i didn't notice at first because he ends up just as bloody and dirty at the end of every movie he's in. yes, even the kid. Bruce Willis is back, and he’s more Bruce Willis-y than ever!

Well, okay, to be fair, Bruce Willis never really left. Why, it seems like just yesterday that we saw him in Live Free or Die Hard, a film most notable for that scene where he drives the car into the helicopter.

Surrogates features Willis doing more of what he does best: playing the gritty, man’s man action hero, getting his hands dirty saving mankind from bad guys and from itself. He’s one of the highlights of a movie that, while competently done and sporting an interesting premise, is ultimately flawed in execution.

Surrogates is actually another movie based on a comic book, albeit one that only people who are into comics will have heard of before the movie’s release. Its premise is not without merit: new technology has allowed humankind to live life through surrogates, lifelike replicas of humans. The human sits down at a terminal of sorts and controls the surrogate with his or her thoughts, seeing and feeling all of the things that the surrogate sees and feels.

This technology has gone from nascent to omnipresent in the course of just over a decade, and by the time our movies opens hardly anyone actually goes outside their home without using a surrogate – far from being luxury items or medical marvels, surrogates have become this world’s iPod, that gotta-have-it consumer electronics device that you just can’t live without. The quick rise of this technology has prompted the formation of the Dreads, a loose coalition of small communities throughout the world who choose to reject the use of surrogates and other technology.

The Dreads are definitely in the minority, though – the movie points out that 98% of the world’s population chooses to use surrogates in their everyday life. As a result, disease has virtually disappeared as surrogates can’t get syphilis, and people no longer have to be unattractive as a surrogate can look like whoever or whatever you want it to.

(It should also be mentioned at this point that, as with the Internet, eighty to ninety percent of all hot women who say they want to have sex with you are actually fat, bald dudes who live alone in one-bedroom apartments.)

More importantly, violent crime and murder are things of the past, since destroying a surrogate does not damage its human operator. Except sometimes it does.

FBI agent Tom Greer (Willis) is brought in to investigate the destruction of two surrogates by a vagabond human with a strange weapon, one that actually kills the human host when used on a surrogate. Things snowball, and eventually Bruce Willis becomes humanity’s last hope.

Yeah, we’ve seen that before.

The movie is by no means perfect. The romantic subplot is tacked on and lifeless. The decision to emotionally anchor Willis’ character by giving him a never-seen dead son feels cheap, and it is. The movie’s climax involves a nerd shouting at the protagonist: “ENTER THE PASSWORD! NOW, PRESS ENTER! OH WAIT, SHIT, IT’S SHIFT+ENTER!”

New rule: in an action movie, never make your audience ask the question “will they input the password in time?!”

As an action film, though, Surrogates is a decent example of the genre. That unremarkable-but-competent feeling comes courtesy of director Jonathan Mostow, who brought those same qualities to the table when he directed Terminator 3 back in 2003. The soundtrack is a little busy and the product placement is a little egregious (did you know that, in a universe where a company overcame the Uncanny Valley and created lifelike human replicas, Dell and HP seem perfectly content with making LCD computer monitors?), but if you rent this movie in a few months you’ll be entertained most of the way through.

The movie is kept from greatness by a few things. Thing Number One is the script, which is perfunctory at best. Thing Number Two is that the movie presents everything in shades of black and white, ignoring the subtleties of the Real World.

As it is, the thoughts and ideas that Surrogates evokes are much more interesting and powerful than the themes that are actually in the film. The movie gets you thinking about mankind’s relationship with its consumer electronics, and attempts to weigh the benefits of such technology (virtually zero disease or violent crime) against the downsides (loss of community, humanity).

This more thoughtful side of the movie is pretty thoroughly undermined by the fact that it doesn’t know where it stands on modern technology. The Theme put forward is that life without risk, without disease and strife and Bad Stuff, is not actually life. You need to have the bad to really have the good.

Instead of really driving that point home, the movie clouds the waters: The Dreads are portrayed as zealots, led by a prophet who ends up being a double-crossing murderous scumbag. Several people-as-surrogates sit around Bruce Willis’ living room shocking each other with an electric rod and getting off on it – I think we’re supposed to feel like these people are doing something bad and unnatural, but it ignores several millennia of recreational drug use on the part of humanity.

We’re shown a version of the future where the choice is either to have technology, or not to have it. The middle ground, where people use technology for self-betterment, is glossed over in the interest of simplicity. Almost all normal people have adopted the surrogate technology and use it in their everyday lives, while the people who refuse this technology are crazed, dirty, fanatical and backwards.

A really good science fiction film, one that gets under your skin and stays with you, should present to you an alternate reality that is mostly plausible, should make you think “there but for the grace of God go we.” As an action movie, Surrogates is surprisingly solid. As the thought-provoking science fiction that it would like to be, not so much.

Final Verdict: 46 Congos.