This film was much better than it looked from the limited previews, and as such ended up being far more disappointing than if it had just taken a dump on the chests of the audience.
Surrogates is set in the near future when we have developed commercially available technology to construct nearly lifelike androids that can be controlled remotely by human operators who (within safeguards) feel and experience what their surrogate does. An intriguing society develops almost overnight in which everyone interacts with the world through surrogates, an entire culture of couch potatoes. You go to work through your surrogate, interact socially with your surrogate, live your entire life through that uplink connection, so that real physical interactions are almost non-existent. Crime and disease disappear as surrogate use rises, after all, all crime becomes simple property crime if people are replaced with machines. Of course the film begins with a murder, with a strange new weapon that overloads the surrogate in such a precise way that the effect is carried back to the operator, killing both machine and man.
The actors do an incredible job of portraying being a lifelike machine controlled by a person rather than just a person. Surrogates (diminutivized to “Suris” in a nice detail) are clearly surrogates when they are on screen, all the details of humanity tweaked just a little bit off skew. Their skin is too perfectly smooth like that of a centerfold airbrushed into oblivion, their hair perfect and overly styled, gestures and expressions come stiffly as if at a slight delay. When disconnected, they freeze like freaky mannequins, almost-human rag dolls. The film gets the details right, looking and feeling like something right out of Asimov or Heinlein. It also takes a cue from other near future sci-fi of the last few years, muting all sci-fi elements other than the core conceit in order to cut closer to reality. Other than the surrogates themselves, and the macguffin at the center of the plot, Boston of the film is more or less Boston of today. Other little details sprinkled through the film add flavor to every scene, like when Bruce Willis’ character leaves his apartment in the flesh for the first time in years and almost has a agoraphobic nervous breakdown, or the way that soldiers have been replaced in the field by endlessly replaceable surrogates.
The plot problems pile up though, dragging down an otherwise fascinating premise and excellent execution. While a few of the metaphorical unmaskings (when you can wear any appearance, you knew that had to be part of the plot) were interesting, the plot fell apart into almost Dan Brown level inanities. The more the twists piled up, the more obvious it was that all of the characters were apparently idiots. Think of it this way, if you were a billionaire who wanted to kill another billionaire because he was politically undermining you, would you: A. hire a street thug to do the hit and give him a billion dollar secret banned weapon to indirectly kill the target in a mysterious and public manner or B. hire the street thug, hand him a shotgun, and tell him to break in to the guy’s house and make it look like a robbery. All events in this film rely on taking option A.
Even with all the plot problems, it could have been salvaged by recognizing the impossible choice at the end of the film. Instead, it’s just treated as an obvious Frankenstein morality play. Surrogates are bad! Get rid of them and we’ll all be people again! We’ll frolic in the mist and revel in the stank of our own fluids! Technology just gets between us! Fuck you hippie, just because things change doesn’t mean they’re worse. Yeah, idiots who play WoW for twenty hours a day in a pool of their own feces are destroying themselves with technology, but blowing up all the computers isn’t the answer you fricking luddite. People have been finding ways to destroy each other and themselves ever since that first hairless monkey rubbed his own balls off because he wouldn’t stop humping a particularly curvy piece of basalt. “Guns don’t kill people, people do,” might be naive, but no more so than “People don’t kill people, guns do.” Boiling complex moral issues down to binary choices is the telltale sign of a weak storyteller.
It was also terrifically short, coming in at exactly 90 minutes including the ads and previews at the start. I criticized Gamer for this a couple of weeks ago and got a bit of feedback from viewers who preferred films to come in at a tight hour and a half. Let me explain a bit differently: it’s certainly possible to tell a good story in any amount of time, be it 30, 60, 90 or 120 minutes. Hell, Return of the Jedi clocked in at 135 minutes and I never felt it really dragged in any significant way. The problem is that when you get to the end of a film and your reaction is “that’s it?”, the disappointment is compounded when you look at your watch and realize that there was no reason that the film makers couldn’t have spent another twenty or thirty minutes deepening the story.
So, the eternal question, is it worth seeing? Well, it’s not a terrible movie by any stretch, and was certainly an enjoyable enough time. It’s got a great atmosphere throughout, and the constructed world is genuinely interesting and well thought out, but the plot and story just don’t hold up their end of the film. So if you’re not a sci-fi junkie, you’re probably not going to find much here. If you are a sci-fi junkie though, and enjoy detail and setting even if the plot is middling, then it’s not a bad film to catch.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com.