Surrogates (2009)

February 28, 2010

Surrogates (2009) – Review by Isaac

“Look at yourselves. Unplug from your chairs, get up and look in the mirror. What you see is how God made you. We’re not meant to experience the world through a machine.” – The Prophet.

Here’s what you need to know before you watch this movie: Surrogates is not an action film. And it’s biggest mistake was promoting itself as such. Between Bruce Willis and the futuristic-robot plot, I was expecting some sort of explosive DieHard4 and I, Robot hybrid. I fully expected to make a few jokes about “Die Hard 5: Robots with a Vengeance”. With these expectations, I was certainly disappointed. There is action, but the quantity and quality is nowhere near some of Surrogates’ predecessors like I, Robot and Minority Report.

Surrogates begins with a fascinating segment of news clips introducing robotic and surrogate technology, leading us from it’s beginnings in the year 2000 to it’s widespread use in 2017, when the film takes place. In 2017, going outside without your surrogate is like leaving the house without your pants. Not in the sense that the cops will come and throw you in jail, but that you’d feel naked and exposed. Everyone uses a surrogate, (98% of the American population, to be exact). Just think of plugging into the Matrix, (or Avatar); you sit in a “stim-chair” while your mind connects to your surrogate, a robot who looks just like you and can do anything you need and experience anything you want to experience. Using a surrogate has a number of advantages. You can spend all your (human) time in your pajamas. Just plug into your perfect robot body, drive to work, go to a dance party afterward, fix your human body a midnight snack and it’s time for bed. You can take a vacation without even leaving home, just plop into your stim-chair and rent a surrogate in Hawaii. Oh the Utopia! You can live your life completely without flaws! (-or at least just hide them at home). And not only is your surrogate designed to be the “perfect you”, it’s super strong, fast, durable, and allows you to do anything you want without harming yourself. Forget the dangers of driving, bungee-jumping, or STD’s, your surrogate body can literally be torn apart without any damage to you or your mind. … Or maybe not.

Our film picks up with the murder of a college student and his nightclub hookup. But a little investigation reveals that this wasn’t just surrogate vandalism by the “meat-bags”, but a new weapon capable of killing the human driving the surrogate. Up until this point, you were completely safe (though unconscious) at home while you experience all the joys of life through your surrogate. But now that someone can target your robot-self with an energy weapon and fry your brain, human and robot alike, it threatens the use of “life as we know it.” Detective Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) sets out to uncover the motive and find the weapon. He’s a pretty likable guy who feels inadequate living his life as a surrogate but can’t put his thumb on why. We get the impression that he would live as a human if using surrogates wasn’t so necessary on a social and professional level. We also get the impression that he hasn’t seen his “real” wife (Rosamund Pike) in years, just her barbie doll surrogate. Through Tom Greer’s eyes we encounter some of the oddities and implications of surrogate use. For example, that blond babe who was murdered at the nightclub? Enter scene of Tom Greer discovering an apartment room of wigs, designer clothes, and a fat guy in a surrogate chair. Nasty. Another implication is that American lives are no longer lost in wars. Think Call of Duty or other war videogames here. Each soldier links to a military surrogate, who then fights on the battle field until killed. Once the robot dies, he simply links up to another robot (who is sitting in a makeshift barracks at the battle-site), and gives it another attempt. There is a whole room filled with soldiers in stim-chairs.  I suppose that whoever runs out of surrogates first loses, (it’s not explained in the movie).

Anyway, on with the plot!  Tom Greer ends up getting his surrogate smashed. Driven to stop the killer and his master-plan, he sets out as a human among robots. This serves to deepen both his frustration with surrogate society and how he is completely powerless to change it. There’s one particularly powerful scene where Tom Greer finds a man flirting with his wife. He smashes the surrogate with furniture and begins to beat the synthetic flesh off his inhuman foe. Everyone at the party bursts out laughing, including the now half-skeletal womanizer. Tom continues to batter the laughing man until, his chivalry fruitless, gives up and storms out of the room. Not only is he powerless to correct this robotic addiction, he cannot even save his own wife from it.

This really delves into the heart of the film. Sure using a surrogate keeps you safe and beautiful, but ultimately it’s numbing.

It turns out that the remaining 2% of the population who doesn’t use surrogates are a religious group led by The Prophet (Ving Rhames). Composed of what appears to be mostly rednecks, they live in robot-restricted “reservations” and believe the use of surrogates is wrong, and counter to what God created man to be. Tom Greer visits the Prophet, and his psuedo-religious message comes as a great comfort to our troubled detective. With this ethical challenge, he must get to the bottom of this weapon, where it came from, and how it will be used.

I won’t give away any more than the plot, but it is a well crafted story. It all comes to a solid conclusion in the end, but you’d better get those mental wheels churning if you want to keep up, because Surrogates really keeps you guessing. The ending is both surprising yet fitting. It’s a little sloppy here and there, preventing it from becoming a real gem. I know that critics really hacked apart this movie, and even though I enjoyed Surrogates I can understand why.  It doesn’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the better sci-fi thrillers, lacking the finesse of Minority Report and the thrill of I, Robot.  The action is present but it’s really one of the less memorable aspects of the film. I was pretty critical of it at first, but I went back for a (partial) second viewing, and really enjoyed what Surrogates has going for it. Surrogates’ strength is in the well developed and self-contained world. This is probably due to the Graphic Novel it was based on.  The scenes of workplaces and street corners filled with super-models and body builders, the cultural aspects and fallout’s of such a society, this is where our attention should be focused. But with our glamorized commercials and Michael Bay style movies, the idea of “everyone looking perfect” just doesn’t stand out to our 21st century eyes. Which is possibly the greatest irony in Surrogates. Our technology is nowhere near sophisticated enough to make surrogacy possible, but our culture is standing at the front door with her hand poised over the doorbell. Surrogates dares to ask the question, ‘what will we lose in our quest for physical perfection?’ According to the character of Tom Greer, our very humanity.

3.5 out of 5 Zipped Lips.

I was originally disappointed in the lack of memorable action, but after giving it some thought and going back for more, I discovered that “action” is the wrong lens for Surrogates. It’s a suspense thriller, but it’s thoroughly a science-fiction story; challenging the designer fabric of our society.

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