Surrogates

We can’t let robots live our lives—did you know that?
★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
2009
Director: 
Jonathan Mostow
Starring: 
Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, James Cromwell
The Setup: 
Someone’s found a way to kill people though their robot surrogates.
Discussion: 

I do love me some b-grade science fiction. The kind of thing that doesn’t create any kind of sensation, appears on the second row from the floor when it finally appears on video, then proceeds directly to the previously-viewed bin. I had some good hopes for this one, hoping it would match the high highs of such cheese-fests as A Sound of Thunder or Knowing, but no, it turns out to be mostly just tepid and lame.

My showing was preceded by a rather hilarious comment summing up the extended advertisements/in-depth segments we had just seen: “You experienced NBC’s Trauma.” Then a voice-over comes on, before the film starts, and informs us, before a single image even appears on screen, the exact point the movie is going to make: Life is not to be lived through machines! Well, I guess we can all leave now then, huh? A few seconds later, we see that this film starts Radha Mitchell, and then you should know exactly what kind of low-level crap you’re in for, as she has a pesky habit of always showing up in cheap, sensational entertainments: Man on Fire, Phone Booth, Silent Hill, Finding Neverland, Pitch Black. I should mention that SHE is not all that bad, she just shows up in so many perfectly cruddy films they should put her name in those little boxes explaining the rating: “Sci-fi action violence, some language, Radha Mitchell.”

Anyway, as with all sci-fi movies of a certain level, we open with a bunch of exposition under our credits, in the old reliable form of a news segment. James Cameron as Cantor invented robots that could be controlled by machine through the mind, and fourteen years later, most people stay in their living rooms and send their robotic surrogates out to live their lives for them. They apparently feel everything their surrogates feel [the hows of this are left unclear], and everyone’s in favor because then their real self is never in danger. Crime has dropped to zero [why?] and all discrimination is eradicated [why?]. But all is not peace and placidity. You see, there’s this group of rebels who think that people should live their own lives, they are called the Dreads, and are led by Ving Rhames, who does indeed sport dreads. There’s also talk of the military using surrogates to fight wars in distant countries.

So we join this rich kid being driven somewhere. He gets out at a club, picks up a hot girl [everyone’s surrogates are of course much hotter than their real selves are], and they’re out on the back alley ready to screw when someone blasts them with some CGI-o-beam that not only kills them, but kills the human using them as well, which is like SO not supposed to happen.

Sounds like a mystery for Bruce Willis as Tom Greer, police investigator. His partner is Radha Mitchell as Jennifer. They so cannot believe killing a surrogate would kill its user—that invalidates the whole point of surrogates! And it turns out the person that got killed at the beginning was the son of Cantor, the inventor of surrogates! They investigate, and it’s a little amusing that the person behind the hot chick that screwed Cantor’s son is actually a big fat sweaty man in real life. Well, be what you want to be.

So after a hard day as a surrogate, Greer wakes up for real in his apartment. In reality he is bald, his skin has wrinkles, and he has a goatee. He gets up and goes into his son’s room, decorated as though a young boy still lives there, although his son is dead—DEAD! This is the “character development” segment of your movie. The screenwriter arrived at this juncture, and was presented with three choices: a) Family estranged because cop dad is married to his job, b) still grieving for dead son, or c) socially isolated [with optional minor drinking problem] because of the dark side of humanity he has witnessed. In this case, the screenwriter chose B. Greer then goes into his well-appointed kitchen, making you wonder: why do they need luxury apartments when they never actually LIVE in them? On the way he encounters his wife, Maggie, played by Rosamund Pike. She looks like the kind of alien life that inhabits reality shows, and is clearly disappointed to find Greer in his human incarnation. He suggests that they go away on vacation, but she’s not willing once she realizes he means they should go as humans, and leave their surrogates behind. “It’s not the same,” he says, to which she replies: “It’s better.”

Then Greer and Jennifer go to VSI, which makes the surrogates. You’ll notice that at one point we see a vast assembly line extending perhaps a mile into the distance, after we’ve clearly been shown an establishing shot that the building occupies at most a city block. We get some exposition that Cantor started the surrogates, then had a change of heart about them, but was kicked out of VSI, the company he started. We also set up future events by meeting this dude at a control panel at VSI who can locate and shut down any surrogate anywhere in the world. Then—arbitrary chase!

That’s right kids, the time we have to devote to sci-fi ideas has expired, and it’s time to devote the rest of our running time to generic chases and shoot-outs. Greer gets in a helicopter and chases this guy with the surrogate-zapper weapon til he crashes inside Dread territory [those are the humans, recall], where he continues his chase until his surrogate is finally blown apart. The whole thing goes on forever. When it’s over, Greer is taken off the case [as all cops in movies must be at some point], and must travel around in human form, which we are shown, unconvincingly, can be quite anxiety-provoking.

Then Greer goes home to find his wife having a surrogate party in his living room, where they’re shooting up with lava lamps. Yeah, no, I WISH I was kidding. They then have a big dramatic scene where he once more tries to convince her to live life as a human, but she says “THIS is who I am now,” while you’re sitting in the theater going: “WHY are we expending so much time on this inert estranged wife story?” Greer then goes out to the living room and beats up one of the handsome surrogates there, while the others laugh hysterically. A few minutes later he goes in to Maggie’s work to have another talk with her, and again you’re like “Look, movie, if you want me to care about this stupid thread you’re going to have to develop these characters some! You can’t have it both ways!”

SPOILERS > > >
So after Greer goes and interviews this one person and gets info from this other person and does other time-wasting stuff that has virtually no meaning since none of these characters have been developed, we find out that Cantor has been hacking into various people’s surrogates and his goal is to use the big thingy at VSI to upload a virus that’ll destroy all the surrogates and kill all their users. He’s using Jennifer to do it, but Greer gets in and kills Cantor, then inhabits Jennifer’s body himself, and the climax of the movie is Greer tapping at a computer, trying to hack in before the virus can go out and kill all those good consumers. He does! But them another part of the virus is going to destroy all the surrogates, and Greer has to think about it, then destroys all the surrogates worldwide, forcing humanity to have to live as themselves again! What a powerful statement. We see people emerging from their houses in their slippers and robes, blinking in the sun. Then Greer returns home to find his real wife, all haggard and ugly and addicted to prescription medications, but dammit, she’s HUMAN! And that’s the end.
< < < SPOILERS END

What suckage. It has its few ideas, but very soon all of that is shunted aside in favor of car chases and shootouts and explosions, and by that time you could be watching any movie. Soon they’ll be able to send second shooting units out to just rack up a bunch of generic chases, keep them on hand like stock footage, and then paste in whatever actor’s face they need when it’s time to use them in a movie. We’ll get into how this movie jettisons the sci-fi ideas that are supposedly its reason for being, but it’s also curious in the way it expects us to care about character development when it hasn’t really set up the characters yet. Like all the crap about Greer and his wife—I guess we’re supposed to understand that the reason they are estranged and why she’s on all the pills is because of their dead child? But the film doesn’t bother to set up what this MEANS to any of them, so it all just rings hollow and seems like a waste of time. Plus, it would help, as mentioned, if you weren’t using Generic Character Attribute 37b: Dead Child.

The other thing is that this movie belongs to what I’m beginning to see is a fairly common movie type: The sci-fi that is supposed to have real-world social resonance, but actually relates to ABSOLUTELY NOTHING in the real world. The first movie that really made me notice this was Star Trek: Nemesis, which expends much running time prodding us to ponder whether it is our biology or our experiences that make us who we are, the answer to which is: WHO THE FUCK CARES? In this case, getting involved with the film requires engagement with whether we should be living our lives through robots, but—what the fuck does that have to do with anything? There IS a point to be made here… the film might connect surrogate use to our society’s living their lives through virtual interfaces like cell phones, computers, Facebook, IMs and other such things that replace direct human interaction, and this would be an interesting and very resonant topic, but DO YOU THINK FOR ONE SECOND that a movie from Disney’s Touchstone Pictures is going to come out and tell you that using your mobile device or Facebook or Twitter or IM is BAD? The movie also has a sub-theme about using surrogates that are much more physically perfect that a human could ever be, but do you think that a movie from Disney is going to criticize the lucrative business of making people feel ashamed of their imperfect looks? How else are they supposed to “aspire” to be the surrogate-types that are the Disney-affiliated TV, movie and music stars? This was adapted from a graphic novel, which I can only imagine must have had more actual content than we have here. So this is social satire that has been thoroughly de-fanged, and in the process lost its very reason to exist.

What you’re left with is just an empty husk comprised of 100% pure bullshit. Which would be perfectly acceptable if it were even somewhat entertaining, but it’s just an inert collection of chases, shootouts, tepid action scenes and generic special effects. It is, in every possible way, a Radha Mitchell film.

Should you watch it: 

No, it’s shit.