Surrogates (United States, 2009)

September 25, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Surrogates Poster

Surrogates was not pre-screened for critics. Most of the time, I understand when a studio takes this route - it's a way to avoid undue negative publicity before the release of a movie that is recognized behind-the-scenes as being a turd. Once in a while, however, a non-screened movie turns out to be a pleasant surprise, and this is one of those instances. Surrogates is better and more thought-provoking than about 2/3 of the fare currently showing in multiplexes, yet it has been given a "no confidence" vote by Disney. Why? Who knows? Maybe the decision was made to cut this loose and spend as little on marketing as was viable without offending star Bruce Willis. Perhaps an assessment was made that there weren't enough action scenes (although there are plenty) to energize the target teen audience. Or, most disturbingly, maybe it was thought that the premise was too cerebral for the throngs of movie-goers who clog multiplex corridors on Friday and Saturday nights. Whatever the reason, Surrogates was shielded from the eyes of critics before its opening, and that's a shame. Because, whatever its flaws, it is a good movie.

The material is not new to science fiction fans. In fact, it has been a staple of the genre since there has been a genre. It appears in the writings of many of the greats. It was a lynchpin of the original Star Trek pilot ("The Cage," with Jeffrey Hunter). And it has been an element in numerous recent big-screen sci-fi productions (The Matrix and Dark City, to name two - and there are others). Surrogates is not the best of the stories to delve into this subject, but it's far from the worst. It is hamstrung by the need to prioritize pacing over content. The movie runs a little too short and skimps on aspects of plot development in order to keep things moving at a fast pace.

Today, on-line, many people you "meet" in chatrooms are not who they seem to be. 40-year old men may be posing as 20-something women. Teenage boys may be adding a dozen years to their age. And pedophile catchers associated with Chris Hansen may be pretending to be underage girls. In the cyber-realm, it's possible to be whoever or whatever you want to be. In the world of Surrogates, this has been taken one step further. Technology has enabled people to have real, three-dimensional robot avatars taking their place in society, while they lie in a bed and control the mechanical being's actions with their minds. Virtually all interaction is done through the surrogates and, although this reduces the dangers of day-to-day life and has all-but eliminated violent crime, it has also increased isolation. People no longer feel comfortable dealing with other people, even spouses, without the surrogate buffer. There are groups of humans that reject the surrogate culture, but they have been marginalized and are forced to live in ghettoized reservations.

Greer (Bruce Willis) and Peters (Radha Mitchell) are FBI agents investigating a double homicide in which the destruction of two surrogates appears to have killed their users. This is not supposed to happen and violates a failsafe. In order to get more information, they approach the creator of surrogates, Canter (James Cromwell), who also happens to be the father of one of the victims. Canter realizes that the target of the murder attempt may have been him, and points the finger of blame at the corporation he created (but no longer runs). When Greer's surrogate is destroyed and the FBI refuses to provide him with another one until an investigation runs its course, he elects to go out "in the flesh," and the details uncovered by his sleuthing cause him to reach a terrifying conclusion.

The film's direction by Jonathan Mostow is crisp and clean. He shows the same flair for action he displayed in Terminator 3, and his sequences are coherent and not marred by the quick cutting and flashy camera moves that have hijacked too many action scenes in recent productions. Although the movie likely would have been better had the story been fleshed out more, it does not give the appearance of having been noticeably "dumbed down." Although this is first and foremost an action/adventure movie, it does not neglect the hard questions about technology. There is also a delicious bit of irony near the end; we consider along with Greer the benefits and penalties associated with action versus inaction.

The special effects work used to create the surrogates is effective. They look almost human. I'm reasonably sure this "unreal" look was accomplished as much through computer-enhanced airbrushing as it was through makeup. Bruce Willis, for example, looks 20 years younger (especially compared to the grizzled version who makes his appearance once the surrogate is destroyed). Radha Mitchell is stunning - she's a beautiful woman to begin with, but her avatar is flawless. Of course, there's a creepiness to all these robots, since none of them look or act quite human.

Disney's treatment of Surrogates raises the question of whether Bruce Willis, once one of the Big Three (alongside Stallone and Schwarzenegger) can still open an action movie. Perhaps the issue isn't Willis' drawing power, but the fact that he's not playing a gung-ho icon. This isn't John McClane. Greer is physically weak, borderline agoraphobic, and of dubious hero potential. That kind of protagonist is harder to sell than someone who charges in where angels fear to tread. This should not, however, be a reason to avoid Surrogates. If anything, it's a reason to see it. This represesents the smartest high-budget, high-profile science fiction film to have come along in quite some time.

Surrogates (United States, 2009)

Run Time: 1:28
U.S. Release Date: 2009-09-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1