[Surrogates. Directed by Jonathan Mostow. Writers Michael Ferris, John D. Brancato (two others). Released 2009, now in DVD and Blu-Ray. As customary for SciTechStory, this review contains many spoilers.]
We get it: Surrogates (robots) bad; being human good. In fact, I’d wager most people more than get it before the opening credits are over. The movie Surrogates doesn’t hide much. You know from the start that the Bruce Willis character will come out on top…not just survive but be righteous. You know that the surrogate idea is a mistake, and there will be a correction of global proportions. The only question is how the movie will unfold to these ends.
Surrogates has one big premise: Each person, typically lounging at home in a wired-up rig that looks like something out of the Matrix, has their own surrogate robot, in these post Cameron movie times, a robot avatar. In a real sense, people live in their robot avatars and interact with the world by controlling what it thinks, says, and does. The robots move, speak, and look like utterly fabulous human beings. In fact, on occasion they do some super-human things, like jump on top of busses and throw live people around like puppets. They’re so good looking and so strong, it’s a wonder that the street life looks just like it does today. You’d think a lot of them would be jumping around like Spiderman, just for kicks.
So there’s a cartoonish aspect to the movie. There’s also a murder mystery. Police detective Tom Greer (Willis) and his partner, Peters (Radha Mitchell), get the case of what is said to be the first murder in years (surrogates, of course, don’t actually die). A surrogate is ‘fried’ by a mysterious weapon outside a nightclub. It turns out the surrogate’s operator is also dead, a real first. It also turns out that the young operator of the surrogate is the actual son of the man, Canter (James Cromwell, reprising his iRobot role), who invented the surrogates. Naturally, there is an evil or shall we say, disinterested corporation that manufactures the surrogates, which is involved several ways in the plot, not the least of which is that the company jettisoned its founder – the Canter fellow, which pissed him off. Two more pieces to the murder mystery dynamic: The active part of the world is made up almost entirely of surrogates. Their operators stay at home 24/7 and apparently all wear pajamas and bathrobes. Then there are enclaves or ghettos, called the Dreads, which contain people who chose not to have surrogates. They’re real people doing real people kinds of things like smashing surrogates that enter the enclaves. At a guess, the real people (‘meatbags’) make up maybe 2-3% of the population, at least in the United States.
Got all that? This is called ‘world building’ in science fiction. In the movies, it mostly involves a lot of shortcut visuals so you get the idea but not much detail. Unfortunately, in Surrogates some of the missing detail is bothersome. What particular details that might be will vary among the audience. For example, it occurred to me that there’s no scene with surrogates eating. Why would they, they’re robots? So, what pleasure is there in food – unless, of course, the sensory equipment is so exquisite that the nuances of flavors are instantly recreated in the mouth of the remote operators. (Not. See science spoilers below.) Well, that bothered me. You’ll find something of your own.
More than anything, Surrogates wants to be an action hero movie. Of course, Hollywood execs want that; it makes more money. The director, Jonathan Mostow (Terminator 3) is known for rock-em-sock-em pyrotechnics. Accordingly, there are enough car chases, foot races, mob riots, gunfights, and Terminator-style rip-the-face-off-the-robot moments to suit the average 12 year old. Some of the more discriminating audience might notice lapses in CGI technique or movement sequencing in the action montage; but that’s a quibble.
What’s not so much a quibble, but a fundamental complaint, is the perfunctory interest the movie has in the ‘human’ side of the story. Now this is often true of action thrillers, in general, not to mention sci-fi robotic thrillers. However Surrogates tries hard to insert a human storyline into the plot. It’s there, like a challenge, but in so many ways the movie never gets around to making it work. Here’s the problem: The story of the movie tells you ‘…surrogates are an addiction.’ It doesn’t show it. It could; there’s a kernel of that story in the relationship of Greer, who is not addicted, and his wife Maggie, who is addicted. They’ve lost a child in a car accident, both parents have grieved, but the wife hasn’t been able to move on…or rather she’s moved on to drugs and the fantasy of surrogates. Her dependence on a surrogate and Greer’s dealing with it could have been the center of the movie, but it’s not.
The movie uses only short clips, all visual, to show that Greer’s wife looks and behaves like an addict (pills, pasty face, and depression); but until the very end of the movie, the only interaction with her husband is through her surrogate. Oh and he pounds on her door once or twice. Now some of this is intentionally kind of symbolic – the isolation of the addict. It’s also convenient; this is an action movie, who wants to drag the pace down with dialog and human suffering? However, the movie’s story continues to hint at the emotional underpinning. The movie’s makers are not willing to give it focus or time to develop.
That happens a lot in Surrogates, which is one big reason why this is a relatively enjoyable movie but one that I’ll bet fails to grab most people very deeply.
The other reason might be peculiar conflict between surrogate society and those ‘real people’ – the meatbag society. The Dreads look like slums, bombed out slums at that. For the most part, the inhabitants are dirty, bad-tempered, and revolting (literally). They have a leader, ‘The Prophet’ (Ving Rhames), whose dreadlocks and unctuous demeanor seem more appropriate for a drug lord. Yet these unsympathetic folk are supposed to be the ‘good guys’ – the real people, trying to keep alive what it means to be human. We know this because we see clips of kids playing ball, doing human being stuff like that. Compared to this is the sterile, regimented corporate culture, the big surrogate manufacturer, it’s mad (as in angry) founder, and the murder mystery with the powerful new weapon. All in all, sort of familiar science fiction stereotypes but with ultra-fuzzy edges at the points of moral conflict.
From this description, you might get the impression that Surrogates is a mess. No, not exactly. It’s skillfully made and has reasonably good production values. But it’s trying to cover five different types of story – action thriller, murder mystery, cartoon, the human condition and a rousing save-the-world ending. None of the stories gets the right amount of emphasis. When you think a poignant moment is there for the picking, the movie jumps (literally) into a chase scene. Just when it seems like it might have something to say about corporate irresponsibility, it confuses it with fascist military action. And so on, and on.
Too bad. There’s a good or even great movie to be made about the world of avatars (real ones) and what they may do to humanity. This isn’t it; but it’s a reasonably entertaining 88 minutes.
-Economics: Can everybody afford a surrogate? We’re led to believe the phenomenon is worldwide – yeah, like everyone in rural Asia is using surrogates. This is an economy dominated by the manufacturing of surrogates. What do other manufacturers think about that? The impression is that ‘surries’ are throw-away; that’s doubtful. Anything that sophisticated is too expensive to blithely toss. Of course, making economic sense is a distant concern in most movies, science fiction in particular. But this is a world dominated by the use of robots, and it is to wonder how this all works in terms of productivity, payment, education, and social interaction. It’s an area simply ignored by the movie, but may bother a few in the audience.
-As is usually the case, the technology in Surrogates is well beyond what is available now. The concept of remotely ‘living’ in a robot is already being developed. One could argue that drone pilots (those people who shoot terrorists from high flying drones) already have one foot in such a world. However, we’re a long, long way from true avatars. Of course, in a science fiction movie it’s perfectly all right to depict such wonders. This one, however, in a documentary style prolog, tries to say that surrogates are a kind of recent phenomenon, and that they were perfected and distributed in, oh, less than ten years. The whole thing is in a contemporary environment, except for this overwhelming culture of surrogates. I didn’t believe it, not at the beginning, not at the end. Some people might.
-The climax of the movie is saving the world – or at least saving a few billion people from dying. The potential disaster is made possible by having all the computers controlling the surrogates channeled into a single room (in the U.S.) by a fantastic web of communications, monitored by an army of – more surrogates. Silly point. You use computers to monitor that much traffic…but anyway, it’s both unwise and technically not credible to have that much centralization. The Chinese, for one country, would not stand for their surrogates being controlled by New York. In any case, it would take many minutes – not seconds – for commands to propagate world-wide (even if they could, which is unlikely).