Monday September 28, 2009

Review: “'Surrogates” (2009)


At first “Surrogates” didn’t look like much to me, particularly when I saw those online ads of sexy women with exposed robot parts. Then I read some synopses and became intrigued by the premise. Then I went to see it.

Trust your first instincts.

Surrogates, starring Bruce WillisIn the near-future, near-perfect robots, attuned to individual brain patterns, are created initially so the handicapped can move around more easily; then they're used in place of soldiers in time of war; then, well, because it’s fun and easy. You lay in a chair at home and feel whatever your better-looking, stronger surrogate is doing out in the world. You experience life virtually. All the fears you may have of the outside world—death, germs, stubbed toes—are gone. 

So it’s kind of like TV. It’s kind of like this thing. It’s kind of like video games and avatars and fill in the blank.

It’s relevant.

Strike that. Should be relevant. The movie is ultimately hugely naive about human nature.

During the titles, we get the 14-year history of surrogates. How they were created by a wheelchair-bound man named Canter (James Crowell: uh oh!), and how the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of surrogates “in daily life” (making “with all deliberate speed” sound like the most precise language possible), and how the conglomerate VSI became the leading manufacturer of surrogates, but how seven years ago they had a falling out with Canter, and three years ago an anti-surrogate movement began, led by a man named The Prophet (Ving Rhames in Rastafarian wig), and “surrogate-free zones” were created in major American cities like Boston.

The story proper begins in the back of a limousine, where the son of Canter (in surrogate form) heads to a club, meets a beautiful blonde, makes out with her in an alleyway, and is then killed by a sinister guy on a motorcycle.

Because the surrogate revolution led to a 99 percent drop in crime, this is an unprecedented homicide, and surrogate FBI agents arrive: Greer (Bruce Willis, with blonde hair and wrinkle-less face) and Peters (Radha Mitchell, looking like herself). They quickly find out that the beautiful blonde was surrogate to a fat bald man—nice touch—and his safety wall has been breached: He's dead in his chair at home. So is Canter. Then everyone clams up fast. The FBI chief, Stone (Boris Kodjoe), imposes a total media blackout, Canter is distraught and enigmatic, the folks at VMI toe the company line.

Greer plays good cop with Canter, bad cop with the lawyers at VSI. “I hate lawyers,” he says. But he’s friends with the agency tech geek, who, in a crushingly obvious plot device, has access to every surrogate/operator in the world. That’s basically the gun in the first act, isn’t it? And yes, it goes off. 

Through the tech geek, Canter learns the killer’s name (Strickland) and whereabouts. Surrogate cops go after him, surrogate cops drop—as do their operators. Greer almost gets it, too, but crashlands in a surrogate-free zone. Even as he pursues Strickland, he’s pursed by a hillbillyish mob, who, just as he’s about to get Strickland, get him. They crucify him—the surrogate—as a warning to all surrogates.

Questions at this point in the story:

  • Why would surrogacy lead to a 99 percent drop in crime? If surrogacy is similar to going online, wouldn’t we be even less civil as surrogates? Wouldn’t it be easier to fight and kill, because it wouldn't really have consequences? The behavior the filmmakers foresee is the exact opposite of the behavior likely to occur.
  • If your surrogate doesn’t have to look like you—as seems to be the case—does this mean a million Angelina Jolieish girls are walking around—as in the poster? Wouldn’t this be confusing? How about a million Batmen? 
  • Why are all of the luddites, the “dreads,” fat and ugly? Wouldn’t these be among the first people to embrace surrogacy?
  • The surrogates have a blanched, creepy look because the film is ultimately anti-surrogacy. It’s supposed to make surrogates less appealing to us in the audience, but it doesn’t answer the question of why surrogates are appealing within the movie. And surely there are kids in this future, ironic hipsters, who would want an old/fat/ugly surrogate? Just to thumb their noses at the rest of society?
  • Why do the posters of The Prophet, with LIVE printed below, remind me of the Obama HOPE poster? Is this another right-wing message from the right-wing folks in Hollywood?
  • With all the looks in all of the world to choose from, how did surrogate Bruce Willis wind up with that hair?

In the wake of the mob crucifixion, the real Greer—bald, wrinkled, goateed—is momentarily surrogateless and taking baby steps in the world again, but there’s a half-heartedness to him. He’s father to a son who was killed (baseball glove and Red Sox posters fill his still-pristine room), and husband to a wife who relies on her surrogate to get through her day. In fact, he seems more interested in connecting with his wife than in connecting-the-dots of the case. He’s more interested in making the filmmakers’ case (surrogacy sucks!) than his own.

Maybe because the criminal case isn’t that interesting? Three villains to choose from: Canter, VSI, Stone. Who’s guilty? All of them. VSI invented the weapon that breached the safety wall but tried to hide it, Stone has been promised a cushy gig at VSI if he can bring it back, but it’s in the hands of Canter, who, sickened by what he’s created, wants to undo his Frankenstein monster by killing its billion operators. He’s even behind the whole “dreads” movement, whose Prophet is actually a surrogate, controlled by Canter. Question: Wouldn’t Canter himself have made a better prophet than his Prophet? Wouldn’t he have immediate authority in the matter?

In the end Canter kills Peters and controls her surrogate to breach the room where the tech geek has access to all surrogates and operators, so he can kill them all. “They were dead the day they plugged in,” he snarls. Greer tries to stop the countdown and we get the following exciting dialogue from the handcuffed tech-geek: “Hit enter! No, wait! Shift enter!” Is this what all of our action movies are going to sound like now? “Control-alt-delete, motherfucker! Oh shit, you’re on a Mac keyboard? Command-option-escape! No, the command key is the one with the apple on it! With the apple on iiiiiitt!

One of the saddest moments I’ve experienced at a movie this year came at the end of “Surrogates,” when Greer, given the option to reconnect or disconnect operators around the world, chooses disconnect, and a billion surrogates—and planes, trains, automobiles?—drop to the ground. In the theater someone actually applauded—so loudly and insistently I wondered if he wasn’t a marketing plant. If he wasn’t, more's the pity.

Why was he applauding? Because Greer defeated not only the bad guys but the concept of surrogacy. Operators—that is, us—came out of their homes, blinked, and looked around. It was a new day. But it wasn’t. If anything the scene reminded me of a power outage, when everyone suddenly leaves their homes and mingles with their neighbors...until the power is restored. Then they return to whatever surrogate life they were living: TV, Internet, video games. The same would’ve happened in the movie. Power outages do not change human nature. The filmmakers want the ending to be uplifting when they know it’s not.

Here’s the sadder part. Why was this guy really applauding? Because his surrogate for the last 90 minutes, the actor Bruce Willis, defeated the concept of surrogates in this movie he was watching. That’s the disconnect, isn’t it? That’s the lie the filmmakers are smoothing over as expertly as VSI smooths over its lies. That's why the best lines of the movie are the first lines of the movie: Ving Rhames' contemptuous voice against a dark screen: “Look at yourselves. Unplug from your chairs and get up and look at how God made you.” Not only you, the operators in the movie, but you, the audience watching the movie. Unplug yourselves.

No one did.

Posted at 07:34 AM on Monday September 28, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009  
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