You know how Hollywood sometimes puts out two of the same movies in one year, like animated ants or volcanos or meteors? The premise of Surrogates is kind of like that of Gamer, an idea that feels like an inevitable future, based on the truth of what we know about how avatars are used even now. In a year when plots centering around the identity and control issues of surrogates and the interpersonal complexities of dealing with manufactured representations of an unseen operator, Surrogates continues to entertain us philosophically as we as with lots of fun Surrie mishaps and unveiling a mystery. In the present day of the story, James Cromwell’s company has gone from smart prosthetics to full personae replacement via robot. You stay locked in your stinky bathrobe while your sexy idealized self interacts with other sexy idealized selves, free from concerns about mortality. Similar to the idea in Society in the movie Gamers, operators are remote and anonymous, their avatars canoodling risk-free on the outside. Dissimilarly, the avatars here are nice disposable robots, rather than semi-consensual real human strangers with an implant. It’s a cool notion and a scary one too.
Naturally there is a “real life real world-only” movement, the Dreads (insulted Futurama-style by being called “meatbags”) who surely must be behind the shocking inciting incident: somehow, someone can kill the operator through their Surrie! Dun da dunnnn! Enter Robot Willis, FBI agent whose meatbag operator is starting to feel the ache of his disconnection. It’s long been a movie fan clichÃ© that when Bruce Willis’ character has hair, Willis does not act as well as when he has no hair. Go ahead, check the filmography. In Surrogates, we have smooth-headed, grizzled good-actor Bruce as his real self, and waxy faced Willis Surrie with the fringe on top as his robot. It’s kind of perfect. Overall, hairless Bruce gets more screen time and the film benefits from it.
Willis’ lovely robot partner is played with alarming artificial facility by Radha Mitchell. The leader of the Dreads is the always intimidating Ving Rhames as The Prophet. Try not to think about the last time Bruce Willis and Ving Rhames were opponents in a movie. It all seems very simple — finding the balance between human connection and personal safety, the Minority-Report-like monitoring stations that can stop naughty Surries mid-crime, the identity mystery we can experience even now through our myriad ways of connecting online. Then Surrogates kind of tries to out-think itself; instead of letting a simple plot unfold in an interestingly complex world, the writer(s) bring(s) in unnecessary sort-of surprises and double crosses and zig zags to try and spice it up, and trip on their own shoes in the process. Do not look up the screenwriters’ filmographies because while they stumbled in Act 3, they really were onto something for a good chunk of this film, and we want to encourage more of the good stuff and less Catwoman.
In comparison, Gamer was simple and as a result we got to immerse ourselves into a somewhat mind-bending world, which is of course the actual point. Here, we’re just trying to remember who is on what side and is being driven by whom. It’s not so complex that it’s unfollowable, it’s just more than it needed to be. The source material is a graphic novel, which makes sense when you watch the beautiful exposition sequence — it’s efficient, informative, and lovely to view. I would have liked to explore this world more and not keep slamming into some convoluted scheme that defeats its own purpose. I had fun watching it, but I actually thought the movie was smarter than its plot. See what you think. I’m going to check out the graphic novel.
MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 9/25/09
Time in minutes 64
Director Jonathan Mostow
Studio Touchstone Pictures