“Surrogates” will probably end up on one of those “biggest flops of 2009” lists, because it cost $80 million and, two months later, had only made about half of that back. Why this movie was such box office poison is beyond me. Sure it’s Philip K. Dick lite, but it still presents some interesting talking points, such as what does it mean to lead an “authentic” life, and what makes us human? More specifically, the film shows us the pros and cons of letting technology take the wheel.
Based on a graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, “Surrogates” takes place in 2054. Everyone who can afford a life-like surrogate owns one, and uses it to live their lives. While they stay home, lying on a padded table, bathed in ultraviolet glow and sporting what look like swimming goggles, their robotic counterparts with whom they are neutrally connected, go out and work, ride the subway, and go to clubs. VSI, the company that created the surrogates, promise consumers a “life … only better.” And in some ways they are right. With 98% of the population using the androids, crime has dropped to almost non-existent levels, and no one has to worry about sexually transmitted disease, the flu or colds. What’s more, a person can be whomever he or she wants to be – the disabled can walk, minorities aren’t judged by their skin color, and corpulent men can feel sexy in the body of a busty female – and do whatever he or she wants to do. Fall from a building, get hit by a car, get riddled with bullets … all of these things can be done to a surrogate and the owner remains unscathed. Or does that person? Even though most people embrace surrogates, in this society there is a vocal minority that sees them as an abomination. Led by the Prophet (Ving Rhames), a Rastafarian-looking individual, these individuals live on human only reservations that are strict about their “no robots allowed” policy. (These redneck looking folks pack heat.) Wanting to rid the world of surrogates, they may or may not engage in terroristic activities, such as using a unique weapon on surrogates that not only blows out the android’s CPU but also liquefies the owner’s brain, thereby killing him or her. What’s going on? FBI agents Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) and Peters (Radha Mitchell) are on the case to find out.
“Surrogates” is essentially a police investigation set in the future. As a sci-fi fan who enjoys a good mystery, I wasn’t disappointed. I actually wanted to see the film when it came out in the cinema – on Sept. 25 – but for some reason, I never got around to it. This means that as soon as it had a DVD release date, it was added to the top of my Netflix queue. There’s a lot to like about the film. For one thing, it’s timely and relevant. A fair number of people already assume “avatars” in online community environments, and I’m sure if given the opportunity, they would jump at the chance of having a full-sized surrogate. They could leap around like a superhero, skydive without a parachute, and have sex with whomever they wanted. They could look like Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt without having to undergo plastic surgery. It would be addictive – to be someone else and do anything you want. But there are negative consequences to using a tool like this, as the film points out. Once Tom Greer loses his surrogate – the rednecks hit it with a truck and shoot it – he must navigate in the “real” world; something that fills him with stress and fear. (His partner, Peters, can’t believe that he’s doing it without taking drugs.) How easy is it for us to become alienated or disconnected from each other when we don’t have to interact? Is our life really ours when we aren’t living it? And like a drug, wouldn’t having a surrogate allow us to avoid real situations? For instance, Tom and his wife, Maggie (Rosamund Pike), have lost their son to a car crash, and by the looks of her, she was in the crash, too, suffering facial wounds. But instead of dealing with their loss and helping each other through it, Maggie uses her surrogate to escape her pain. As a result, the couple’s marriage has deteriorated. Furthermore, if you are using your surrogate and you get into an argument, all you have to do, as Maggie does, is disconnect, thereby leaving the other person standing there and looking at an inanimate object.
As far as acting goes, “Surrogates” doesn’t offer award winning performance. The “make-up” effects, on the other hand, are another story. I don’t know if Willis has a smooth face because of CGI or actual makeup, but whatever was used is effective. In fact, the contrast provided between the well dressed and perfectly coiffed and make-uped surrogates and the bathrobe wearing, unshaven and, seemingly, unshowered schlubs who are lying around in their beds all day is startling. The little futuristic touches, too, are noteworthy, especially the plug-in stations that dot that street scenes – you have to recharge your surrogate over night – and the robots that scan hundreds of TV screens for crimes in progress. If there’s one complaint I have about “Surrogates” is that it feels like a bunch of other films already out there, including “I, Robot,” “Gamer,” “Sim0ne,” and even “Sixth Day.” (Interestingly, James Cromwell is in both “I, Robot” and “Surrogates” as the mastermind behind the creation of the robots/androids. In “Surrogates,” he is Canter, a wheelchair bound inventor, who wants to give other disabled people the opportunity to walk. His creation explodes onto the market and takes on a life of its own. Years later, a disagreement about the direction of his company, VSI, results in his being fired. In “I, Robot” he is Dr. Alfred Lanning, the scientist who goes splat at the beginning of the film.)
Knowing that humans have a nefarious side, you might begin wondering why people don’t do more horrible things with their surrogates, such as rob banks, blow up buildings in which the surrogate owners could be easily killed, and more. Part of that is answered by the character that monitors criminal activity. When he sees anything wrong, he sends a signal to shut down the offender, as he does in the case of a rape-in-progress. Is that legal? “That’s a grey area,” he says. It also doesn’t help a would be criminal’s situation that all surrogates are registered to a person – so it should be easy to know who is committing a crime – and whenever a surrogate does anything, its memories are recorded. Some posters on imdb.com have wondered why, if you had a surrogate, you would go to your job. Probably because we are creatures of habit, and people would remain in typical modes of behavior. Why do people who retire go back to work? Even when given options to do otherwise, we tend to go with the “safe” option.
It’s unusual that I would say this, but “Surrogates” would have benefitted from being a bit longer than 89 minutes. But I guess if that much footage cost them $80 million, it would have been cost probative to include much more exposition. Would I recommend “Surrogates”? If you like sci-fi or police shows, you couldn’t go wrong with renting the film. It’s entertaining without being overly taxing on your time or mental resources.