Surrogates: The CBR Review

"Surrogates," which opens today, tells the story of a world lost in its own vanity and anxiety. Part murder mystery, part actioner, and part genuine science fiction, the film explores some interesting places, but also hobbles along in some spots.

The film opens with a prologue/credit sequence explaining the birth of true remote cybernetic control and its slow effect on the world over a fourteen year span. When the story proper begins, most people have bought a remote robot called a surrogate (occasionally shortened to "Surry"), machines that tend to be idealized, powerful versions of their human controllers. A Surrogate is locked to the brain patterns of the controller and cannot be shared. People against the use of the machines have been herded into semi-autonomous agrarian zones across the country. They are led by the Prophet (Ving Rhames), and hope to convince the rest of humanity to reject the Surrogates.

With the stage set, we are introduced to the victim. Carter is the son of the original creator of the Surrogate technology. Due to that relationship, Carter is allowed to use a spare Surry and hit a hip night spot in Boston while his body remains in his dorm room in San Diego, California. Carter encounters a "meat-bag" -- a human in the Surrogate zones -- who proceeds to shock the Surry. The shock is powerful enough to kill Carter. Not only is this the first murder in many years, it is also the first time a Surrogate's destruction has caused the death of its controller.

Brought into investigate this unusual crime are a pair of FBI agents. Both agents, Greer (Bruce Willis) and Peters (Radha Mitchell), use Surrogates to do their jobs, and both are surprised by the condition of Carter's Surrogate, quickly learning the identity of the "meat-bag," Strickland (Jack Noseworthy). Attempting to apprehend Strickland, Greer survives an attack with the electric charge weapon, but crashes his helicopter inside the Human Control Zone. Before he can apprehend Strickland, Greer's Surrogate is assaulted and rendered inoperable by the agrarian inhabitant.

Strickland is killed by the Prophet's men and the Prophet takes possession of the weapon, but there is more to all of this, as we discover that there is one single mind pulling all the strings.

The film is full of interesting ideas, including the central concept of Surrogacy itself. Like last month's "Gamer," the film takes the position that humanity's tendencies toward vanity and self-obsession would explode into an interior world of sloth and an exterior world of plastic perfection if the means existed to enable such a scenario. The very nature of the technology would breed a world so terrifying, Greer can barely process it when forced to walk through Boston as a "meat-bag."

The Prophet's Human Control Zone is a place that takes going "off the grid" quite seriously. The revulsion to Surrogates is so strong there that people reject more benign technologies in protest. Though the Prophet's motives are ultimately suspect, the very nature of these Human Reserves is an proactive extrapolation of the premise. Visually, the greener park feel of the Reserve plays in contrast to the immaculate urban paradise of the Surrogate world.

In the midst of the murder mystery is the relationship between Greer and his wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike). When we're introduced to them, they're both mourning the death of their child. However, Greer chooses to confront his pain, while Maggie uses her Surrogate to hide from the loss and their old life. This is actually the most compelling thread in the film. Having lost his Surrogate during the course of his investigation into the murder, Greer attempts to get Maggie to come out of her room and, therefore, her Surry. Rather than join her husband, she retreats further into the immaculate persona of her attractive machine. Conceptually, it's quite similar to the mood organ in Philip K. Dick's "Do Android's Dream of Electric Sheep."

It also affords Willis a rare chance to demonstrate his ability to portray a range of emotions in one scene. While attempting to access his grief in a public place surrounded by other Surrogates, Greer tries to get Maggie to open up, and she actually unplugs from her robot for a time. Willis is actually quite effective in this scene. It has been a long time since he has been able to show this sort of vulnerability on screen.

Anytime the characters are in scenes that illustrate the complex issue of proxy living, the film comes to life. They are genuinely interesting glimpses into this society. Most sci-fi flicks these days skirt the issues to get to explosions and car chases. And while "Surrogates" contains these scenes as well, they seem out of place and are easily the weakest points in the film. While the helicopter crash is well executed, the surrounding material lags, particularly a short foot-chase around old shipping containers. The car chase toward the end of the film is the absolute low point for the film, containing no suspense or tension. Rather, it feels obligatory, almost as if the film feels it owes the audience this sort of scene because Bruce Willis is in the film.

There are also some faults in John Brancato and Michael Ferris' script. One particular problem is that the identity of the true puppetmaster is loudly telegraphed early on in one scene. Most of this character's appearances make for, unfortunately, the least deft handling of the interesting ideas in the film. Also, the Prophet appears and is dispatched from the proceedings before any real development takes place with the character. The agrarian notion is interesting, but gets very little play and the Prophet never really gets to position it.

At the same time, this is the most visually interesting film that director Jonathan Mostow has delivered to date. Cantered angles actually work here. The overall feel of the urban and Reserve areas of Boston are not heavily stylized, but offer enough odd details to convey the very crucial change in the society presented in the film. Also, Mostow delivers dramatic scenes that keep your attention. More than any of his other films, one gets the impression he cared about the ideas presented. While some parts of the film look like they were obviously shot on a backlot and the action scenes hardly sizzle, this is one of Mostow's better films.

"Surrogates" begs to be a slower, more deliberate film. At eighty-eight minutes, it only gets to scratch the surface of its admittedly compelling ideas. Also, the very nature of the industry requires the film to lean more toward the action beats, as "science fiction" is generally only used to dress the sets of modern action movies. However, there are parts of this film to recommend. It is certainly the most detailed depiction of proxy-living audiences have yet seen on movie screens. Its core concept will make you wonder if your technology brings you closer to people or further apart, an intellectual riddle worth pondering. "Surrogates" is more thoughtful than one would expect and, while not great in its action moments, is an interesting presentation of science fiction ideas.

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