Movies, Briefly: Surrogates (2009)

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Surrogates feels like the least interesting film you could possibly make out of some very interesting material. It presents a world, adapted from the graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, full of bold ideas and rich thematic possibilities, then ignores that world completely for an hour and a half to tell an off-the-shelf hard-boiled mystery story.

This is one of those movies that makes you angry, not because of anything it does, but for all the things it doesn’t do and could have if only it had taken some risks. If you’re going to go to a casino, you might as well place some bets.

In the world of the film, advances in robotics now allow humanity to live their lives without ever getting out of bed. Instead of venturing outside and running the risk of bodily harm or illness, people remotely pilot these cyborgs called surrogates. These surrogates look better than regular humans, and have enhanced strength and durability, which is particularly handy should you find yourself in the middle of a rote movie chase scene and have to leap from car to car to escape Bruce Willis. Surrogates seem foolproof — harm inflicted upon them isn’t passed along to their operator, sending violent crime rates plummeting downwards — until one winds up severely fried in an alley and its operator is discovered dead along with it. Enter Willis’ FBI Agent Tom Greer to figure out how such a thing could happen and to ensure that nothing even remotely interesting is done with Surrogates’ premise.

I mean, think about the possibilities here. Obviously, the idea of living vicariously through artificial creations or virtual reality helmets invites comparisons to video games. But surrogacy also works as a metaphor for voyeurism in general and for moviegoing specifically, for living vicariously through the eyes of another person for as long as the film runs. The surrogates drive a wedge between Greer and his miserable but gorgeous wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike); that could be used in the service of a story that explores the way people allow technology to mediate intimacy, and how it often offers the promise of freedom at the price of dependence. Director Jonathan Mostow visualizes the surrogates’ physical perfection by airbrushing out the wrinkles and blemishes of the actors playing them; most of the surrogate extras look like underwear and swimsuit models, an invitation to some pointed commentary on the unrealistic body images presented in most Hollywood fare.

If any of these ideas were truly explored in Surrogates it would be a movie worth seeing, but really, these are just the things your mind wanders to when it becomes disengaged from what is an utterly mechanical tech-noir thriller. It is competently directed by Jonathan Mostow and well cast with watchable actors like Ving Rhames, Radha Mitchell, and James Cromwell, but it takes some really juicy ideas and and turns them into just another sausage from the Hollywood meat grinder. At just 88 minutes long, Surrogates doesn’t even have enough time to properly tell its main story, much less explore the myriad possibilities of its setup. As Willis tracks one lead after another with the same blank stare on his face (appropriate when he’s playing a robot, less so when he’s walking around in the flesh), I kept hoping the camera would stop following him and just wander into any of the buildings he passes. What would a gym look like in a world of surrogates? Or a movie theater? Or an airport? Or a grocery store? Or a pro football game? All the movie cares to show us are laboratories, FBI offices, apartments, and laboratories.

With a much better script than the one by John Brancato and Michael Ferris (who wrote the last two Terminator films and apparently are the only people in Hollywood qualified to write movies about lifelike robots), Surrogates had the chance, I think, to be a truly great sci-fi movie. Instead, Surrogates almost becomes a surrogate itself, a blandly attractive surface designed to obscure the depth and complexity that exists underneath.


Matt Singer covers the world of film for the Independent Film Channel. He's also a regular contributor to their website, IFC.com. His personal blog is Termite Art. More from this author →