Surrogates started out life as a comic book series (what else?) from 2005/2006, just at the peak of the social networking boom. And as a nifty allegory on the emerging trend for a faceless society created by Faceook, Second Life and WoW, it works very well. It’s a great premise for a dystopian future fantasy. But as a film, Surrogates is hamstrung by a terrible (and I mean really, really terrible) script, some iffy looking effects and a laboriously predictable plot.
Bruce Willis stars as Tom Greer, a maverick FBI agent with a chip on his shoulder and a dysfunctional family life, but who always gets his man. The kind of role he can sleepwalk through, in other words. Set in 2017 in a world where 99% of people now live life through a robotic surrogate body, an avatar, basically. This has lead to an increasing liberalism in society. No one looks old or can die of unnatural causes, you can sleep with anyone you want and you can be whatever you want.
It would have been cool to see some weirder surrogates (people who wanted to live as pandas or something – you know that there would be people who would!), but on the whole, everyone just looks like a plastic-y catalogue model with a good tan and bright white teeth. Except for Bruce, who looks just like Bruce Willis, with hair, of course.
What’s so wrong about that, you ask? Well, not really very much as far as I can see. Yes, it’s slightly unnatural living your life hooked up to a sophisticated virtual reality machine, but it’s not like you don’t interact with anyone or the world’s gone to shit; more that the parameters and context of sociological contact have evolved, as is only to be expected.
However, when someone starts to mysteriously kill humans by destroying their surrogate, something previously thought impossible due to built in safety overrides, Bruce starts to question whether using surrogates really is healthy. This is explored through conflicts with his wife, who has become ‘addicted’ to her surrogate, and refuses to see Bruce face-to-face, even at home.
Willis, rather presumptuously, decides that surrogates are bad, and does his best to poop on everyone’s party. There is an excellent scene where Bruce has a panic attack the first time he goes out without his surrogate, which does pose an interesting philosophical question, but despite the filmmaker’s best efforts at making them out to be creepy, the surrogates genuinely seem like more of a benefit to mankind than a curse.
Not everyone is a surrogate user, and the ‘real’ humans, or meat bags, have gathered in surrogate-free zones under their own autonomous control, lead by the charismatic Prophet (Ving Rhames). However, the humans seemed to have devolved somewhat, living in squalid, feral-like conditions – another mixed message of the film. There is also very big inconsistency with the surrogates themselves. They look normal while activated, but as soon as someone logs out, they become very dollish.
Terminator 3 director, Jonathon Mostow (who’s calling the shot here), isn’t above a bit of ham. But some of the dialogue is truly atrocious expositional crap, of which Willis gets lumbered with the worst lines. He’s professional enough to keep a straight face, but you can see in his eyes that secretly he’s crying inside. Rosamund Pike does better as Greer’s wife, Maggie, but then her character has real emotions to mine. The ever-dependable James Cromwell gets a few minutes in as Dr. Lionel Canter (the multi-billionaire inventor of surrogate technology), and Ving Rhames is, well, Ving Rhames.
In short, this looks like a film that was commissioned to tie into the Avatar hype of last year, but looking at avatars from a neo-noirish Blade Runner angle. It has some visual panache and some slick action sequences, a good premise and talented cast. But that doesn’t stop Surrogates from being a muddled and messy film, unsure of its own message. If this was WoW, I’d have rebooted and started again with a different character.
The only extra on the disc is a director’s commentary, which is hardly ideal either.
Surrogates is out now on DVD and Blu-ray, and can be ordered from the Den Of Geek Store.