My notes on Surrogates.British dystopias (Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, A Clockwork Orange, Blakes 7, Children of Men) tend to be about troublemakers who get squashed by bureaucracies; but American future-is-cracked stories (Soylent Green, Blade Runner, Logan’s Run, I Robot, Minority Report – all films which mangle proper science fiction writing) take a cue from Fahrenheit 451 and all follow cops who enforce a futureworld’s horrible system but question the set-up of their society and come to side with the rebels. A rare instance of an American movie following the British mode is THX 1138. This is based on a graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele which hasn’t crossed my radar, and is thus part of a phenomenon (ranging from Men in Black to Whiteout) whereby even comics no one cares much about are easier to put into film development than novels simply because it’s easier for producers to look at pictures than grapple with prose.
The point of most dystopias is to pick a contemporary phenomenon (like surveillance or overpopulation or youth worship) and extrapolate an entire lopsided society built around it; formerly, dictatorial governments were behind the rot – now it’s evil corporations. Surrogates, like the crankier Gamer (and, ten years ago, The Matrix), is about living by proxy through computer games; here, the twist is that fat, spotty, ill-seeming decadent citizens get to lie on a ‘stim-bed’, hooked up to an idealised robot surrogate which goes out into a busy, glitzy world and gets on with the chore of interacting superficially with other robots. Though it’s a satirical cartoon of a trend rather than a seriously advanced possibility (for instance, there’s no addressing whether living like this means a drastic decline in the birth-rate), the film establishes its future reasonably well – the CGI-airbrushed faces and confident strides of the surrogates are subtly ‘off’ and the cast get into a groove playing people who can’t be hurt (until the plot demands it) or seen emotionally naked. At one point, we visit an army facility where ranks of soldiers lie on beds fighting a distant desert war—when their surrogates are blown up, they just shift to another one who trundles into action. And, guessably, a foxy lady (Helena Mattson) in a club turns out to be a front for a fat bloke—though none of the operators here are as gross as the ubergeek in Gamer or even the devolved chubbies of WALL-E. A ghetto in the middle of Boston is set aside for ‘dreads’, luddites who abhor surrogacy and live like vagrants as they follow the decrees of ‘the Prophet’ (Ving Rhames). A woman whose surrogate is in the shop for an upgrade struggles with a ‘loaner’ that has a face stretched over an obvious skeleton and ungainly rubber hands. A shop sells lifesize Barbie and Ken bodies. A ‘meat-sack’ forced to walk the streets in his own body has lost the knack of being in a crowd, and gets battered by robots who treat the world like a dodg’em arena.
The problem with Surrogates – directed by Jonathan Mostow and scripted by Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato (the Terminator: Rise of the Machines team) – is that it defaults to standard future cop business, with an unprecedented murder (using a new zap gun that liquefies the brains of the controller when fired at a surrogate) bringing a jaded detective into murky corporate conspiracies that take place in the usual high-tech underlit boardrooms and dropouts-round-the-oildrum-fire ghetto. FBI guy Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) has the sort of pre-packaged backstory lazy hacks download into every hardboiled movie—the death of his son in a car crash has driven his wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike) to withdraw from reality and trot around in perfected form whereas he’d like to go on holiday as his grizzled real self and reconnect with her. They also keep the kid’s room perfectly preserved, just so Dad can sit in it and brood while fondling a baseball glove. In these stories, ever since Fahrenheit 451, the cop’s wife is invariably a whining sellout (especially in Philip K. Dick novels, though Blade Runner dropped the unforgettably awful Mrs Decard from the mix). The twists and turns of revolve around crippled scientist Canter (James Cromwell), who invented surrogates to help people with disabilities and now wants to shut the whole system down, which is why shadowy government-corporate baddies are out to get him. A few reveals—that the anti-surrogate Prophet is himself one of Canter’s surrogates—are clever, but the film (which runs a brief 88 minutes–suggesting post-preview pruning) doesn’t pause to let them be effective (we get no reaction from the Prophet’s robot-hating followers to this news). We spend time with Greer as a smooth-faced, full-head-of-hair Bruce-in-Moonlighting robot and a grizzled grey-goateed baldie, but none of the characters can emerge as fully-rounded. Second billing goes to Radha Mitchell as Greer’s partner Peters, but the real woman is killed offhand and her surrogate gets piloted by several people in the course of the film. She’s such a blank the supposedly sharp ‘tec hero doesn’t notice until he’s told. He doesn’t even register the loss of his friend, since he’s too wrapped up in his own miseries to care—which is more like a monomaniacal scripting shortcut than a character point.
Since ideas are almost an embarrassment in movie sf, this defaults to fights and chases in a very familiar way. Sadly, there’s only one really good action scene—in which the real Greer tries to get away in a car from the super-powered (and elegantly poised) surrogate Peters amid much crashing and destruction. Otherwise, it flashes to life in moments—the real Greer slouching past his crucified and despised robot self in the dread reservation, the silly but appealing big switch-off as all the surrogates fall over in the street and their controllers forced awake (no, we don’t find out what happens where surrogates were doing vital work like surgery) to a brand new dawn. This is a smooth, mid-level studio effort, closer to I, Robot than Gamer, which has its cool concepts but exhausts its imagination in basic world-building, falling back on utterly generic storytelling and character interplay. It’s a sad irony that the ‘real’ business, with the Greers’ fracturing marriage and eventual reconciliation, is as rote as the fanatasy proxy lifestyle the script condemns.