Surrogates is a lost opportunity. Directed by Jonathan Mostow (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines), it has everything you'd want to be a successful mainstream release in the dog days of summer. The film is centered on a fun idea about the merging of robots and humans, it has a star (Bruce Willis) to carry the drama, it has action and chases, technology and gadgets to keep us dazzled and entertained. None of these things save it. Surrogates ends up being flimsy, predictable, forgettable--a lost opportunity for a memorable movie.
I like the basic premise to Surrogates. In the near future, 98 percent of the population will depend on surrogates, or synthetic androids (also known as robots), to live our lives. Humans choose to remain indoors, locked away from the dangers of everyday life, where they are free to roam the city without caution via their robotic doubles. People are plugged into virtual reality equipment in homes, apartments and work spaces and live vicariously through the constructed machines that genetically match our biological forms. Your daily existence is wires, digital screens and electrodes that connect human to surrogate--this is the future.
It's a utopian fantasy world. Crime is non-existent. Days are devoted to prolonging your stay in the machine. Your artificial doppelganger can be anything you want it to be. It is the visualization of the self we dream of being. It is the automaton id. In the real world, the person jacked into the machine is overweight, bald, frail, wrinkled with age, disabled. Your surrogate unit is svelte, impeccably coifed, young, athletic, beautiful and wrinkle-free. The robots in Surrogates are given a rubbery, digitized look that clash with the reality of who is really controlling them. It's all illusion.
That's plenty to build around story wise for a good science fiction yarn. Other intriguing ideas that pop up in the film is our cultural pursuit of safety, where everything around us is portrayed as a threat and the future of armed conflict with virtual, robotic soldiers (both real things in 2009). Unfortunately, Surrogates tosses away its chances at being an interesting, frightening look at our dependence on technology in our daily lives and chooses to wrap itself in the arms of more predictable storytelling. The film suffers as a result.
Despite its hi-tech leanings and edgy, futuristic premise, Surrogates is just an old-fashioned thriller masquerading as science fiction. When someone starts killing off vulnerable humans as they are hooked up to their surrogates, the film veers into the predictable and safe.
It's a who-done-it at its heart. Sure, it's got technology and gizmos that aren't real, but it's got FBI agents, motorcycle chase scenes, car crashes, helicopters swooping over the city and plenty of guns drawn. Who cares if it is human or robot doing these things? Who cares if this is a plausible future for us all?
That's a problem for Surrogates--you don't care. There's no real people to identify with as all the characters are hollowed out, robotic recreations of humans. The only human character we see, FBI agent Tom Greer (Willis), is weighed down with unfortunate cliches--pining over a dead son and restoring the relationship with his wife after a car wreck. Those kinds of heavy handed twins can kill the momentum of any film, no matter if it's a romantic comedy or a period drama. Put those tactics in a sci-fi action film and you're almost begging to destroy what you've created. The good ideas the film has, the realistic and scary ones that could have gone someplace disturbing, are just blips in the larger, more traditional thriller angle the film takes.
There are other problems with Surrogates. The computer-generated imagery (CGI) looks bad. CGI works best when you don't really notice that it's possibly fake; at times the effects in Surrogates are blatantly unrealistic. The main weapon that is used to damage a surrogate looks like some kind of electricity-lightning bolt shooting gun from a decade's past. Cheap, cheap, cheap. The last 30 minutes of Surrogates is a collection of ridiculous leaps and twists that neither draws you in nor feels believable. Each misstep makes the film lose its seriousness that it hoped to have and turns it into something that has the pungent whiff of TV movie vibe. I doubt that is what Willis, Mostow and company were aiming for.
Surrogates wants to be more than it is. The beginning sets us up for a more thought provoking message that it fails to deliver. There's a great idea at its heart worth exploring--the use of technology in our everyday lives that turns us into housebound shut-ins. Combine that basic idea with virtual reality and robots and you have some science fiction worth getting excited over. That opportunity was missed as Surrogates chose to emphasize action over ideas, cliches over originality and the non-sensical over the plausible.
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