by Brett Parker
If good science fiction can be considered a reflection of the anxieties of contemporary society, then it was only a matter of time before a movie like Surrogates would surface. In an age where human interaction is considerably skewered by the heavy popularity of social networking online, Surrogates is a glimpse into how far technology can take us into socially isolating ourselves from each other, and its rather chilling. By presenting a premise that uses robot avatars as a metaphor for our increasing technological detachment, this film has all the material to fashion itself a sci-fi masterwork. It doesn’t quite get there, but we’re very surprised with the amount of details and ideas this piece of pop actually gets right.
Surrogates suggests a future in which humans can use their brain waves to control and feel the body of human-like androids. By sitting in a computerized chair with a head monitor, a person can process their thoughts, feelings, and responses into a robot avatar that can go out into the real world and experience everything for you while you just sit at home. So instead of walking outside and experiencing life with your own body, you can send out a stronger, better-looking robotic self to do everything for you. Originally, this technology was perfected to help the physically handicapped function again in a healthy avatar, but the company that invented surrogates couldn’t resist opening it up to the consumer market. Pretty soon, surrogates sell more wildly than iPods and nearly every man and woman is experiencing life through their remote-controlled robots. Since a consumer can make their avatar any physical preference they desire (male consumers can have female surrogates, white consumers can have black surrogates, etc.), we learn that racism and sexism has rapidly decreased, making surrogate technology widely-accepted in everyday society. Only a select minority of humans, nicknamed Dreads, resist this technology and choose to live in “surrogate-free” environments controlled by a human resistance leader called The Prophet (Ving Rhames).
Surrogates are also designed to resist pain and any physical harm to its cognitive owners. This makes murder and physical violence very scarce in this future world. So it becomes very jarring when it’s discovered that a young man is killed in his home one night after his surrogate is destroyed at a night club. Somehow, the surrogate became zapped with a laser that also managed to fry the brain of its owner, something that is said to be impossible to achieve. Even stranger is the fact that the murder victim is Jarid Canter (Shane Dzicek), the son of surrogate technology’s founding father, Dr. Canter (James Cromwell). Detective Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) and his blonde-headed surrogate are on the case, even though he’s conflicted in his personal feelings about all of this technology. Yet a violent confrontation with the Dreads leaves Greer’s surrogate destroyed and incapacitated, forcing him to place his own human body back out into the real world. Can Detective Greer still keep his human composure in a landscape of advanced robots? Can he overcome those physical obstacles to solve this complex case?
The film also comments on the societal obsession with achieving the perfect body. In an age where plastic surgery is glorified on television and the married mother next door is getting breast implants, it’s no big secret that people have grown shallow yearnings to eliminate their physical imperfections at any cost. Surrogates imagines people being able to design and upgrade their robot counterparts to whatever physical specifications they desire. Therefore, almost every surrogate we see is a mega hottie (especially the female lawyers of a technology corporation). In one disturbing scene, we see Greer’s wife, Maggie (Rosamund Pike) at her day job, which can only be described as a robot salon in which instant facelifts and body tweakings can be done before lunchtime. One nice visual touch is to show the human characters contrasting exceedingly different from the look of their robot counterparts. We’re surprised, for example, to find that Greer’s partner, Peters (Rhada Mitchell) is much more elderly-looking than her beautiful avatar.
As Greer becomes something of a lone human figure in an artificially-dominating world, we realize that the character represents a contemporary yearning for truth and realism in a world that seems to disturbingly favor shallow and phony values. Willis is the right actor for such a human ideal; he has fashioned a career out of playing cynical everymen, ones who despair of lies and relentlessly dishes out reality checks. It says something that his appearance here resembles his unkempt appearance in What Just Happened. My only complaint is that Willis’ dry wit is on a scarce supply in this performance. His knack for one-liners would’ve bounced wonderfully off the creepy phonies surrounding him in this film. If Greer had the same snappy dialogue as Willis did in The Last Boy Scout, it would’ve truly elevated this film to something exceptionally effective.
Surrogates is Jonathan Mostow’s first feature film since Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and it’s nice to see him bounce back from such a clunky enterprise with a thoughtful and confident sci-fi work. Terminator 3 had big problems, from uneasy tone shifts, redundant and watered-down action, to the fact that the film could barely stand up against the first two films at all. Mostow’s direction was so embarrassing compared to James Cameron’s masterful work. I expected him to take this complex universe for granted in the same way he did the Terminator sequel, but I’m happy to report that he brings an entertaining grace and curiosity to the material. A lot of questions we have about Surrogate technology do in fact get answered and Mostow doesn’t shy away from going after some of the film’s deeper ideals. Of course, this universe isn’t as sublimely crafted as the future worlds of Minority Report or Children of Men, but Mostow brings a knowingness and competence to the material that spares Surrogates from being another piece of cookie-cutter sci-fi trash.
Even though it’s lacking in humor and the mystery plot turns out to be a dud, Surrogates is a film made up of good ideas and knows how to present them in an entertaining enough package. It’s more rewarding to have a sci-fi film generate discussions of philosophical reflections instead of action scene dissections, and that’s probably the highest compliment I could pay to this movie. So the next time you look at your facebook page, think about the next couple of steps up from that technology and you’ll realize the unsettling place Surrogates is coming from.