Review: Surrogates (2009)

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SURROGATES suffers from the same problem that a lot of middling sci-fi films suffer from (besides being derivative), namely that it has a solid and interesting central premise which doesn’t hold up to much, if any, additional scrutiny. It’s a lot better, and smarter, than director Jonathan Mostow’s previous film TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES (not hard, but still), but doesn’t quite go the extra mile.

In the near future, most of the world’s population now use surrogates – perfect robotic avatars mentally controlled from the safety of your home – to go out into the world, work, travel, and socialise. Most seem happy with this arrangement, but an anti-surrogate terrorist group headed by The Prophet (Ving Rhames) is gaining traction, and the sudden simultaneous murder of a surrogate and his user prompts FBI agents Greer (Bruce Willis) and Peters (Radha Mitchell) to begin an investigation that casts doubts on how comfortable the world has become with their new way of life.

First off, let’s look at why that solid central premise doesn’t really work. It’s established in the opening sequence that the vast majority of the world now uses surrogates to go about their daily lives, and that this was achievable because the manufacturers of these self-projection avatars made them affordable for all. This chunk of exposition is laid out for us from the start over the opening credits, but the explanation is hurried and never built upon throughout the film. For instance, I want to know what happened to the all of the world’s socio-economic problems to allow for such seemingly universal equality. What about poverty in Africa or South America? Which genius came up with a solution to not only feed the world, but bring them cheap surrogates? Like the thematically similar IN TIME, the premise just seems to be an excuse to have only young, sexy actors (plus Willis and Rhames). For once, I was crying out for a little more exposition.

The film has a pretty standard noir setup – a detective, a killer, and a conspiracy to unravel with added sci-fi gimmickry. It owes a great debt to much better sci-fi films like THE MATRIX, MINORITY REPORT and TOTAL RECALL without ever ripping them off outright.

There are some witty ideas, like seeing that even in the future, our shiny tech toys will still need hours plugged in to recharge, or that pushy tech salesmen will still try to offer us every frill and extra available (“the basic model is vision-only, if you want to feel something that’s extra”), or a surrogate salon that looks and sounds like a high-end custom car repair shop. We also come to understand that in this future you can appear exactly how you want in surrogate form, customising it to whatever extent you wish, much like an avatar for an RPG – do you want to be a younger, healthier version of your middle-aged white self, or do you want to be a towering black gentleman? One guy we see here has clearly made his choice.

We also witness a brief moment that hits pretty close to home – a military exercise undertaken by soldiers driving their surrogates across a battlefield from the safety of a bunker. This feels particularly relevant with all the recent debate about drone warfare, though, again, it hasn’t completely been thought through that the surrogates in this particular situation don’t really need to look like humans at all. Other attempts at any kind of satire in the film have already been said much more fluidly in Minority Report.

There are a couple of character moments that work well too, like when Greer’s wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike) expresses something only slightly short of abject horror when she sees Greer outside his surrogate and in the flesh for the first time in years, which acts as an effective metaphor for their ailing relationship in general – they never really see each other or interact because of their near-constant use of their surrogates. Willis also delivers a great reaction when he goes outside in the flesh for the first time in years, like he is being born again, disorientated and confused.

It’s amusing to see that the moment when characters wake from their latest trip out in surrogate form is used as a key dramatic moment for this story. What do they really look like? Why do they need a new physical shell? More often than not, the answer is laughably underwhelming – oh no, they’re bald/wrinkled/short-sighted! Perhaps only two characters we see in the film have a valid reason for retreating into surrogacy, and the rest are just shallow.

James Cromwell really is the go-to-guy for playing the “father” of something, whether it’s robotics (I, ROBOT), faster-than-light-travel (STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT) or here where he’s the mastermind behind the technology that makes “surrogacy” possible. Of course, Cromwell is brilliant as always, and dominates the limited screentime he’s given.

On visual terms, Surrogates is sharp and sleek, and nicely filmed. It’s not really an action film, with only a couple of real set pieces, but what’s there is pretty well staged, though the film’s decent but not extravagant budget leaves a helicopter crash looking a little unfinished, and some CGI transitions stand out more than they should. The surrogates look as flawless as you’d expect, apart from Willis’ stand-in who looks unnervingly (and deliberately) doll-like. What the film screams out for in terms of action, is a sports match. We see a poster in the background of one shot advertising a game with a surrogate football player holding the dismembered head of his opponent at his side, and we don’t get to see it! It would have been great to see how surrogacy has changed sport, but maybe the budget didn’t allow for it.

Surrogates moves along at a brisk pace and has some half-decent sci-fi ideas, but the promising premise, if not entirely squandered, doesn’t deliver on its potential. It just about works as a hybrid noir film, though even here you’d want more thought to be put into the plot structure so that all the revelations don’t come in a messy jumble at the end. Diverting, then, but not one that will stick with you. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Sam Mendes, Guillermo del Toro, Bong Joon-ho, Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, Edgar Wright, Taika Waititi and the Coen Brothers. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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