Monday, February 22, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Surrogates (2009)

There is a great tradition in the science fiction cinema of the “future” police procedural.

It’s actually one of my favorite sub-genres because it often involves a very human (hence imperfect) detective or police officer interfacing with new technology and new social norms based on that technology.

Sometimes, this format is what accomplished author Paul Meehan dubbed Tech Noir. Or to bring up the sub-title of his excellent book on the subject, it's "The Fusion of Science Fiction and Film Noir."

To wit, in Soylent Green (1973), Charlton Heston’s investigation of a prostitute's murder led him down the rabbit hole, into a wide-ranging conspiracy concerning food supplies in an overpopulated city of the future.

In Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), Deckard (Harrison Ford) came to a reckoning about what it means to be human -- and even what it means to love -- through his investigation and pursuit of android called Replicants.

Other examples of the future police procedural include Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002), which arrived soon after 9/11 and the Bush Doctrine, and involved preemptive police “strikes” against "thought criminals" who have not yet actually committed a physical crime.

And then there’s also Alex Proyas’s flawed I Robot (2004), concerning a new "leisure" technology's terminal glitch: it might be murderous.

Obviously, some of these films are stronger and more well-regarded than others, but the “future police procedural” is valuable because it offers us one foot in the past (with the genre conventions of the police investigation) and another in the future. It’s a speculative format, but not so speculative that we can’t relate to it. In other words, it reminds us of human history at the same time that it tries to predict accurately the shape of things to come.

In 2009, Hollywood gave audiences the latest example of the “future police procedural,” Jonathan Mostow’s Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis. Based on the 2005-2006 graphic novels by Robert Venditti, the movie adaptation is an 88-minute actioner packed with both intriguing ideas and insightful social commentary on the direction the human race may be heading. Specifically, the film involves the widespread use of avatars…uh, I mean surrogates.

In the near future (2017), ninety-eight percent of the human population makes use of robotic surrogates on a regular, daily basis. This means that the “real” person sits at home in a “stim chair” while his or her better-looking, virtually-indestructible surrogate engages with the world outside.
It is the perfect surrogate who commutes to work (thus cutting down on car accident fatalities). It is the perfect surrogate who engages in sexual intercourse (thus cutting down on the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases). And it is the perfect surrogate who fights our foreign wars (thus cutting down on military fatalities.) But there's a dark underside to this technology as well, as the movie quickly points out.

Indeed, it’s not a stretch to read the whole surrogate phenomenon/revolution as a comment on two specific components of our contemporary 2009 society. First, the anonymity of life (and work) on the Internet. And second, our society’s increasing and even dangerous obsession with youth, beauty and physical perfection.

On the former front, an obese bald man may have a surrogate out in the real world who is a drop-dead gorgeous blond woman. So when you have sex with her, are you really having sex with her? Or with the obese bald man?

Similarly, when we choose a name or “avatar” on the Internet, it may or may not reflect our true identities (including age, sex, nationality, ethnicity, political beliefs, or even physical appearance). In other words, our Internet and Surrogate personalities may be but vainglorious fiction. In aggressively living this fiction, this fantasy, the film asks, what do we leave behind in the real world?

In the film, surrogates indeed offer human beings a chance to build an entirely new identity, one outside the constraints of our biological blueprint. In one sense, this is extremely freeing and empowering: we can literally be anybody online (or in Surrogates, in the outside world). Interestingly, the film notes that racial discrimination has diminished in the world of surrogate robots. This is because you "choose" your identity. You can choose to be black, white, Asian, straight or gay, based on your desires, not your biology. in this future world, skin color and sex are just fashion statements.

Yet oppositely, the film suggests there’s at least some level of deception and perhaps even cowardice involved in recasting yourself as someone entirely "new" and "different" I mean, why hide behind the blanketing wall of anonymity if you really believe in yourself, your abilities, and your words? Why pretend to be something you aren't?
One possible answer is that the motives of the hidden "concealer" are impure. When cloaked in anonymity, we can vociferously criticize other people with no possibility of being personally attacked in return. Consider: when an anonymous source attacks a political opponent, is it because the attack is truthful, or because that anonymous attacker is paid to do so, or even already ensconced in an enemy camp? We just can't know. When an anonymous source reviews a movie or book savagely and viciously, is it because the anonymous author was beaten-up as a snot-nosed kid by the author or filmmaker in question? Again, there's just no way to know. Motives become opaque; words can't be taken at face value. Trust is lost.

So anonymity proves itself both a shield and a point of deception: How can we accurately judge the real value of a persons' words if he or she won’t even stand behind his or her real name. Or behind his or her true appearance?

has a grand time playing with this notion, utilizing the technology of surrogate robots to make a point about modern life on the Internet. Accordingly, there are at least three occasions in the film during which an operator’s identity proves to be far different from the public face of the surrogate. Operators change surrogates in secret. Operators hide in unlikely surrogates, and so on. This nifty element of the film – a new wrinkle in the police “mystery” -- joyfully updates the format. How can you apprehend a criminal if that criminal's identity is fluid, ever-changing?

Finally, Surrogates seems to suggest that anonymity on the Net or in the real world, is actually a mechanism of trickery, denial, and hiding. “Look at yourself,” the film’s luddite Prophet (Ving Rhames) implores. “We’re not meant to experience life through a machine.” Later, we see a banner that reads “Unplug Yourselves!” and it’s another warning about living a false online life at the expense of our life as so-called "Meatbags," flesh-and-blood humans.

The company that creates surrogate robots in the film is VSI, and it has a slogan: "Life...Only Better." What this sound-byte comes down to is that every surrogate robot in the film boasts a sort of super-enhanced (but ultimately creepy...) beauty. Everyone in this future has perfect, youthful, almost plastic-looking, unblemished skin. All the men are tall and athletically-built. All the women are curvaceous and perfectly-coiffed. And most importantly, everyone appears to be young and vibrant. It's the Botox, plastic-surgery, breast-implant, diet pill culture taken to the logical and extreme ending point: robots with perfect tits, robots with perfect hair, and robots with the Peter Pan Syndrome: forever young.

This is disturbing, however, because of what the world of surrogates has so plainly lost: diversity. Bruce Willis (as Agent Greer) is a perfect example of this argument.

As a surrogate, Greer appears plastic and vapid (though young). Yet as a weathered, bald man in his mid-fifties -- as the real Operator -- he looks terrific...and utterly distinctive, unique.

There's a nobility in wrinkles; an honor in wearing your years on your face, the movie implies. A few powerful interests have sold to the many that there is a single concept of beauty, and that somehow we must all adhere to it. That's true in the movie, and in our lives.

Washboard abs. Big breasts. Perpetual youth. We can't all be Taylor Lautner or Angelina Jolie. And we shouldn't have to be to be considered beautiful or valuable.

Again, we're losing something vital, right now, here in our world, as we creep ever-closer to the universe of Logan's Run: where only those under 21 are considered worthwhile; where qualities such as physical perfection are preferred over qualities like intelligence, even experience. This world of "physical perfection" is an unattainable lie, and one that makes many people feel inferior (and hopeless) if they don't conform to society's stringent rules. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; and Surrogates goes out of its way to remind us that by depicting how plastic and fake the beauty of 2017 really is.

I really enjoyed these didactic, science-fiction qualities of Surrogates. Yet, honestly, the film is one of the few "future police procedural" examples that gets the speculative sci-fi right, and the standard cop elements/investigation wrong. Specifically, the film involves a hand-held O.D. (Overload Device) weapon that can simultaneously fry a surrogate and his operator at home. The weapon liquefies human brains and blows out robot circuitry.

In investigating the murder of a surrogate, Greer learns of this weapon, and of the dark forces hoping to acquire and control it. But the problem is this: the culprit, when he is ultimately unmasked, has no compelling reason to act as viciously as he does; no motive. His master plan is to "upload" the O.D. weapon into the surrogate network and kill 98% of the world's population (meaning the Operators as well as the Surrogates). A little extreme, no?

This plan is essentially genocide, yet the villain sees it as a gift, a "rebirth" of the human race. That just makes no logical sense, especially when (as the movie makes plain), there is an easy way to destroy all the surrogates but leave the Operators intact, thus accomplishing the villain's goal of destroying surrogacy. Also, the villain himself is hooked up to a surrogate as he is about to launch his overload virus, so he's committing suicide too...

The details of Greer's investigation never prove particularly compelling, and the movie fails to make enough of a big character moment involving this protagonist. Greer's surrogate is destroyed in a pulse-pounding, well-directed chase sequence, leaving the Operator -- the man -- no choice but to unplug, leave his home for the first time in years, and reckon with ugly, messy reality.

After one scene in which Greer experiences a brief panic attack, this subplot is never again addressed in the film. A key to the "future police procedural" format is the detective's level of personal involvement with the revelatory investigation. How Greer is personally impacted by his sudden return to the real world should be the crux of the movie; and it isn't. We should understand what it means to be human again, in a dangerous world with high stakes. But the movie simply pays lip service to that idea.

There's a subplot here involving Greer's wife (Rosamund Pike), who has fled into her Surrogate on a seemingly permanent basis after a deeply affecting personal tragedy. It's an emotional subplot, but it's treated as a side-alley, a B-plot, and not as a convincing motive for Greer to throw all of contemporary society into unfettered chaos (as he does at the film's conclusion).

Again, perhaps it is my cynicism and personal bias, but I tend to prefer my future police procedurals gritty and realistic. I don't believe society can be changed in a day; I don't believe one simple act (or stroke of a keyboard) can undo decades of change and untangle decades of entrenched interests. In Soylent Green and Blade Runner, the imperfect, dominant system isn't brought down. Either the hero is killed by City Hall, or he flees City Hall, a fugitive. I find those resolutions more believable than the upbeat ending here. In fact, I would have preferred the darker ending of the comic-book series. It culminated with the destruction of surrogacy as well; but also with a suicide. You can't change the world without consequences.

Ultimately I enjoyed Surrogates' science fiction metaphors (particularly the message "Live for Real,") but felt that the script was contrived and the resolution nothing but forced Hollywood B.S. I don't buy the villain's motives either.

This is a particularly frustrating experience: that the film's cop angle should be so trite and cliched even while Mostow nails the really tough stuff: the science fiction.

So Surrogates gets a berth in the pantheon of "future cop procedurals," but not, ultimately, in one of the top spots. Like the Surrogates of the film's title, the script is just, finally, a little too...plastic.


  1. Great look at this, JKM. I have this in my queue to watch (the trailers just didn't have that must see now vibe). And the reviews weren't that great for it. I'm wondering, given that 88-minute run time and the critical points you make about the orphaned sub-plots, whether this film was really hacked to death in the editing room. Perhaps, one day they'll be a real director's cut of this movie. The idea behind it is compelling. I have no doubt the current set of brain-dead studio executives have much in imagination or know how to market sci-fi as it should. This release has the tinge of a neglected film. Thanks for this.

  2. Le0pard13:

    Thank you for your comment. You know, you bring up a great point: I have no evidence of this, but I suspect you are right. The movie feels like it's been cut back to the bare bones; like critical elements were trimmed back to increase the pace, or make for an easier sell.

    All of that -- as you indicate -- is clearly to the movie's detriment. I'd love to see a director's cut if this is indeed the case.


  3. "Yet, honestly, the film is one of the few "future police procedural" examples that gets the speculative sci-fi right, and the standard cop elements/investigation wrong."

    This is the problem I had with this film as well. On one hand, it wanted to be a high-falootin' SF concept film a la BLADE RUNNER and on the other hand it wanted to be a roller coaster action film and I never felt that the screenplay blended these two elements together well enough.

    Still, there is enough in the film that I did like and I really did admire the attempt.

  4. J.D.

    I totally agree with you. There was some kind of creative push-pull here, I'm sure of it. One that made the film less than what it could have and should have been.

    Thanks for commenting,

  5. banapaulo5:46 PM

    Your review hits the nail on the head. I found the movie very prosaic. I don't think the actors were given particularly good direction, and they seemed to be positively encouraging comparisons to I, Robot through the predictable storyline and casting of James Cromwell. It's a shame because, as you point out, the film makes a solid stab at the science fiction elements. Rather than just using the surrogates angle as an excuse for an action film (there is actually surprisingly little, and sub-par, action), the film tries to deal with the consequences of its core idea in an often intriguing and almost poignant way. Which is what makes it even more frustrating that the film is so unsure of itself, and ultimately too limp and underwhelming to really be considered any kind of success.

    Also, could Radha Mitchell possibly have been any more underused?

  6. Banapaulo:

    You said it well -- both in the similarities to I, Robot (which were unnecessary and counter productive) and in the sort of limp execution.

    I'm a big Mostow fan (I love his 1997 movie "Breakdown") but there's just something off about Surrogates, despite the occasionally moments where it nails the social commentary.


  7. I was on the fence about this one and I still am after your thorough analysis John and some great comments. I loved Dark City and I, Robot was such a step back for Alex Proyas. I've never liked much of his stuff since then. I, Robot was disappointing and it sounds as though Surrogates is walking that same line.

    I like Bruce Willis and it looked intriguing, but I had my reservations about it with Disney's hand in the mix. Could the "push/pull" have been Disney? I love Disney for some things, but they make me nervous when it comes to science fiction. I do still have some fondness for the Black Hole.

    I enjoyed Breakdown as well.