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Surrogates (2009)

WARNING: LUDDITE SPOILERS

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

Trust your first instincts.

The premise is from the graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele. In the near-future, near-perfect robots, attuned to individual brain patterns, are created so the handicapped and debilitated can move around more easily, and then to be used in place of soldiers in time of war, and then, well, because it’s fun for the whole family. You lay in a chair at home and feel whatever your better-looking, younger-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. You’re safe. You’re out in the world but you’re not. You’re living but you’re not.

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.

But it’s not. It’s just silly and 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 how 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 an obvious surrogate, and more obviously the son of Canter, is on his way to the opera. Off the phone with dad, he heads instead to a club, meets a beautiful blonde, and makes out with her in an alleyway. He’s also been followed by a sinister guy on a motorcycle—or a guy on a motorcycle who inspires sinister soundtrack music—and this guy promptly kills the two in the alleyway. Because the surrogate revolution has led to a 99 percent drop in crime, we know we’re watching an unprecedented homicide.

Surrogate FBI agents arrive: Greer (Bruce Willis, with blonde hair and a plastic, wrinkle-less face) and Peters (Radha Mitchell, looking as beautiful as Radha Mitchell tends to look in movies), and they discover that the beautiful blonde was surrogate to a fat bald man—nice touch—but he’s had his brains scrambled in his chair. Young Canter, too. It’s the first time such safety walls have been breached.

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 are toeing 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 yet another nice touch, doesn’t rely on a surrogate, but who, in a crushingly obvious plot device, has access, from his little room, to every surrogate/operator in the world. That’s basically the gun in the first act, isn’t it?

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, as we are online? Wouldn’t it be easier to fight and kill, because it’s all just a game now, as it’s easier to fight and kill on Xbox or PlayStation? And what happens when a surrogate, driving recklessly—as one does in a video game—kills a real person? Wouldn’t that happen a lot? The behavior the filmmakers foresee is the exact opposite of the behavior inherent in their metaphor.
  • If your surrogate doesn’t have to look like you—as seems to be the case—does this mean a million Angelina Jolie-ish girls are walking around—as in the poster—and wouldn’t this be confusing? How about a million Batmans walking around fighting non-existent crime? Don’t tell me Warner Bros,, which owns the copyright to BM, wouldn’t jump on that profit-making venture.
  • 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 to them in the movie. And surely there are kids out there, ironic hipsters, who would want an old/fat/ugly surrogate, yes? Just to thumb their noses at the rest of us?
  • 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—like Bruce Willis?
  • With all the looks in all of the world to choose from, how did surrogate Bruce Willis wind up with that hair?

So many ways this movie could’ve been less conventional and more interesting; instead, they always went more conventional and less interesting. Example: When the agents first question Canter, I thought, “Why aren’t they questioning the real Canter?” until I realized, duh!, everyone in the room is a surrogate. But my original thought arrived because, while surrogates for Willis and Mitchell look like Willis and Mitchell, Canter’s surrogate doesn’t look like James Cromwell. So wouldn’t it have been more interesting and off-putting—and increased our awareness of surrogacy—to have the surrogates not look like Willis and Mitchell? Wouldn’t it have saved on the stars’ salaries, too?

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 in an accident (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. Another 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 says. Greer tries to stop the countdown and we get the following exciting dialogue from the handcuffed tech-geek: “Hit enter! No! 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 theater 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 their planes, trains and automobiles?—drop to the ground. At that moment, in the theater, someone actually applauded—so loudly and insistently I wondered if he wasn’t a plant from the studio/production company. More’s the pity if he wasn’t.

Why was he applauding? Because the hero, Greer, had defeated not only the bad guys but the concept of surrogacy. Operators thus 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...until the power is restored. Then they return to whatever surrogate life they were living: TV, Internet, video games. The same would’ve happened here. 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. 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.

—September 27, 2009

© 2009 Erik Lundegaard