September 24, 2009


“Surrogates” is science fiction the way that Hollywood does science fiction–with no subtlety whatsoever.  The opening credits of the film do a great job in describing how our world was changed by “surrogates”, synthetic representations of real humans who control their surrogate remotely and live out their lives the same way.  The comment is loud and clear: our reliance on communication technology like the Internet or personal interaction via online avatars diminish the human experience and make us disconnected from each other.  And if we’re all living as creepy, pore-less RealDolls, then yeah, I can agree with that.  But the best science fiction doesn’t make a statement but asks questions.  “Surrogates” already has the answer before the opening credits are over.

What pushes the plot forward is a murder-mystery where some strange new weapon can not only destroy a surrogate but kill its user.  Surrogates are supposed to be completely safe and in no way harmful to the “operator”, so if your surrogate gets destroyed, you just have to build a new one.  A device that can kill people through their surrogate is a bit troubling so Greer (Bruce Willis) and his partner Peters (Radha Mitchell) do drama-free detective work and the film slogs until the end of the first act when Greer has to break free from his surrogate and work the case as himself.

Surrogates movie image Bruce Willis.jpgIf the set-up of the story has one major advantage, is that it takes advantage of Bruce Willis’ age and puts him in an action movie where he can’t, oh I don’t know…let’s say launch a car into a helicopter (unless he’s a robot that looks like Bruce Willis).  It only happens every five years or so but there comes a film which reminds us that Bruce Willis can act.  He’s not a master thespian nor has he ever claimed to be, but sometimes he puts aside the action star and the smirking joker and plays a human being  Any life in “Surrogates” comes from him and it’s not just because he’s the lone human in a world of machines.

But Willis wouldn’t be so alone if Jonathan Mostow had the subtlety the story lacked.  He assumes because the surrogates are sterile beings, he should shoot the entire film in a harsh, sterile light which accentuates lines and definitions; when he’s shooting a scene set in one of the human-only reservations, he shoots it like a normal film.  But that leaves out the middle ground.  Scenes which would work if they were slightly off-balance or odd are now other-worldly and as a result the surrogates are never creepy, but satirical (which is rarely the film’s intent).  This simplistic approach to the cinematography matches the obnoxious commentary of the screenplay.  As so many sci-fi films before it, the film rarely has patience for its own ideas and unless human (if not somewhat-maudlin) moment sneaks in like Bruce Willis trying to have a personal connection with his wife (Rosamund Pike) or a scene of an operator unplugging and looking at their filthy, imperfect body, Mostow puts the most energy into his set pieces trigger and aren’t those really the point of science fiction movies anyway?

I’m not sure if there can be a quality science fiction film with a massive budget.  When I think of the best sci-fi films in the last ten years, the two that immediately come to mind are “Primer” and “Moon”.  There’s hardly any reliance on special effects and action scenes are non-existent.  It’s about character, drama, and using scientific reality to address a fundamental question about humanity.  “Surrogates” is more about giving you the answer up front and then just giving you some high-octane action mixed with some brief moments of contemplation leading to the answer we already have.

Rating —– C

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