Review: SURROGATES - A Pale Sci-Fi Substitute

Movie Review - SURROGATES

“Surrogates” is an exceptionally frustrating moviegoing experience.

Not because it’s an awful movie. It’s not. There’s a fascinating premise lying beneath the surface of this 88-minute picture. The idea that technology has become a crutch for humanity, a vessel in which to hide from actually living, has fascinating potential.

That potential is never realized because the film is a big tease.

Remember that old Chris Rock line, ‘There is no sex in the champagne room’? He was talking about strip joints, and the ladies whose job it is to separate men from their money, a dollar bill at a time. He could have been talking about “Surrogates” too, because while there’s lots of eye candy there’s no payoff here, either.

Adapted from the Top Shelf graphic novel, it’s set in Boston during the very near future, when most of the world exists via their ‘Surrys’ – Surrogate robots.

People control their surrogates remotely, from the safety and privacy of their home. Surrys come in all shapes and sizes. They’re registered and part of a DMV-like database. And just like a car, you can get a bare-bones model or a top-of-the-line machine with all the bells & whistles.

Blonde hair? Check. Athletic frame? Check. Dimples? Check.

Crime, pain and fear have been practically eliminated by the surrogacy phenomenon.

So has most actual human interaction, since – sadly – the human race has discovered it would rather stay indoors and be high-tech couch potatoes. Why take a chance on having an actual conversation with a real person, when you can pretend to be someone you’re really not? What better way to deal with one’s insecurities than by hiding them behind a physically perfect substitute?

Those types of questions pop into your head while watching “Surrogates,” but the movie doesn’t bother to spend much time on exploring them onscreen.

The film’s central thrust comes early on, when FBI agent Greer (Bruce Willis) and his partner Peters (Radha Mitchell) are assigned to investigate the first human murder in years. Besides the suspect, they’re after the murder weapon, which could pose a huge threat to all surrogate users.

Willis has carried a badge in so many films, it’s nearly become a self-parodying exercise. But c’mon. No one plays the one-man-against-the-world card better than Bruce Willis.

He gets to stretch his craft here a bit by playing two versions of the same guy. One is an airbrushed, well-coiffed G-man surrogate. He speaks smoothly and surely, his self-confidence evident with every phrase.

The man behind the machine is a different story. Greer uses a surrogate as a way to escape from his personal tragedy. But he’s had enough of hiding, and not living, and he wants to rejoin the real world.

No one understands why. Not his wife (Rosamund Pike), not his partner or his boss.

As the murder probe intensifies, Greer turns his attention to the small band of humans who think surrogacy is an abomination of life. These people live isolated in shanty towns nicknamed Dread Reservations, after the movement’s dreadlocked leader.

Ving Rhames isn’t terribly convincing as The Prophet and a twist late in the film eventually undermines his character’s entire reason for being.

Mitchell doesn’t fare much better, although she does do a convincing job portraying a surrogate (talk about a backhanded compliment).

As the man who invented the surrogacy technology, James Cromwell has a small but key role in the story that seems to have been gutted in the edit room.

Director Jonathan Mostow constantly offers up tiny morsels of the world he’s brought to the screen.

As Greer takes his first steps outside in a long time – HIS steps –surrogate charging stations are spotted on every street corner. Outside the Dread reservations, we signs that say ‘No Machines Allowed.’ In the city, all types of surrogates walk the streets, each one a perfect physical specimen.

And if you suddenly get tired of having a blue-eyed, blonde-haired surry, you can hit a salon to have some ‘work’ done. Or get repairs done.

But Mostow directs the film as if he’s got a plane to catch. That lack of pacing saps the impact of many of the plot developments. He also uses TV news reports to go from Point A to Point B, which is a lazy storytelling device.

Don’t be fooled by Willis’ presence and the trailers. This is a murder mystery, not an action movie. Gunfire is kept to a minimum, mostly during two extended chase sequences. That’s where the clear physical superiority the surrogates have over humans is displayed. Their steel frames can take a punch better, they can run faster, leap farther.

Too bad those jumps don’t look very believable.

What is it with subpar CGI work in big-budget movies this year? The special effects when a Surrogate bounces from car to car in heavy traffic were as weak as the sketchy work done in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” Was the entire FX budget spent airbrushing the lead actors??

“Surrogates” borrows freely from a number of past sci-fi movies, and touches on many of the archetypal elements of the genre. The dangers of technology, the corruption of humanity that can accompany scientific advances…it’s been explored before in everything from “Blade Runner” to “The Island.”

Virtual role-playing is a hot topic in film these days. First there was “Gamer,” and James Cameron’s upcoming “Avatar” presumably will touch on it as well.

“Gamer” missed the mark and so now, does “Surrogates.”

Mostow’s failure, and ultimately the film’s, is in not digging deep enough below the surface of these ideas. Perhaps Cameron will have better luck with his project.

2009 has been quite a year for fans of quality science fiction moviemaking.

“Sleep Dealer,” “Moon,” “District 9” and the animated “9” provided a welcome flashback to the thought-provoking sci-fi audiences were treated to back in the 70s and early 80s.

“Surrogates” falls well short of those standards.

More on Newsarama:

<li> Read the entire 1st issue of the SURROGATES comic book

<li> Art of the Adaptation: WHITEOUT & SURROGATES Hit the Big Screen

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