Sometimes there's nothing better than a science fiction thriller supported by an exciting premise that resonates with the present. But there's nothing worse than watching an exciting premise being squandered - and this is precisely the fate of 2009's Surrogates. Adapted from the 2006 graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, this is a film that wastes a fascinating concept by inserting a generic conspiracy plot that's as nonsensical as it is hard to follow. Director Jonathan Mostow's enthralling visual scheme is not enough to compensate for the cliché-ridden script.
A rapid-fire opening credits montage reveals the technological advances leading to the "now" of the story, and explains how surrogates came to be. Most of the population of the world are now plugged into these robotic avatars (which are more or less just ideal representations of the user) and can go about their daily activities without fearing death from accidents, diseases or any other risks associated with the contemporary world. The crime rate has dropped sharply as a result, and the streets are filled with attractive people (of course there's the inevitable gag of a disgustingly obese man walking the streets as a smokin' hot female surrogate). Those who reject the surrogate culture have been marginalised and now live in ghettoised civilisations.
Set in the not-too-distant future, the film picks up when there's an anomaly in technological paradise: someone has developed a weapon which can kill a user through their surrogate (an action thought to be impossible). When the son of the man who invented the surrogates is murdered in this fashion, FBI Special Agents Greer (Willis) and Peters (Mitchell) begin investigating.
What follows is a twisty, heavily clichéd whodunit tale tagged with a predictable ending. The movie simply jumps from turn to turn in a programmed manner and feels underdone at 85 minutes; suggesting that studio interference was a problem, and the movie was trimmed heavily on its way to cinemas. Surrogates has been pared down to the bare essentials of action and whodunit without a lot of room to breathe, which is highlighted uncomfortably by the clichéd subplot concerning the relationship between Greer and his wife Maggie (Pike). It's a narrative thread that's integral to the overall story, but the melodramatic fragments are all that remain. These flaws notwithstanding, the story is at least delivered at a brisk pace. The narrative problems are brought to the fore only in hindsight - if nothing else, the film gets credit for its entertainment value.
Surrogates can be praised for its riveting visuals. Jonathan Mostow's direction is crisp and the special effects are spectacular. It's a fascinating world that's been created here, with the surrogates being given a plastic-like sheen that differentiates them from the "meat bags" who refuse to plug into the system. However the action sequences are severely undercut by one factor: the PG-13 rating. All the violent money shots are placed off camera and the violence is frustratingly tame. Luckily, though, the action is not marred by quick cutting or indecipherable shaky cam. Mostow's intention was clearly to entertain, and in that regard the director has crafted a perfectly serviceable, paint-by-numbers thriller. Unfortunately, though, the high-octane blips are just that - blips. It's admirable that the film aspires to examine deeper issues, but the script by Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato (the guys who penned Catwoman) is lacking. The filmmakers prioritise pacing over content, when a deeper, longer movie should have been produced.
The script is also riddled with holes. Surrogates would surely cost a great deal, so how would the poor or the unemployed or even the petty street criminals be able to pay for a surrogate and have their protection ensured? It's also hard to believe that virtually everyone on the planet would want to own a surrogate. Is real life truly that awful that we could all consider living life as a robot? There are other aspects which aren't touched upon. Can one eat and drink while using their surrogate? How would sex work? Furthermore, how would reproduction work? The robotic surrogates obviously wouldn't be able to give birth, and everyone seems to want to remain inside their surrogate and avoid contact with actual humans, so how the hell would more generations of people be born? The premise of Surrogates is bursting with narrative possibilities and interesting questions the movie simply isn't interested in addressing.
Bruce Willis starring in a movie is always a good thing. He's the John Wayne or Clint Eastwood of this generation: even if the movie stinks, Willis' screen presence makes it more tolerable and worthwhile. Playing the familiar movie policeman role who must risk the loyalty of his family and colleagues to uncover the truth, Willis does an exemplary job. Once his character of Greer can no longer use his surrogate, he's forced to hit the streets in the flesh. From there the film relies on his performance to allow viewers to experience Greer's system shock of facing surrogate land as a real person and realising just how ridiculous the situation has become. Instead of using flashy camera techniques to illustrate the changing perspective, Mostow focuses squarely on Willis' emotional & physical performance - the actor had to convey the central theme of the movie through his performance, and he achieves this, which is utterly extraordinary.
The filmmakers do a great job of making Bruce Willis look young and handsome. That said, the wig he wears is awful. It's a blessing that Greer breaks from his surrogate about one third into the movie. Most of the supporting cast is shoved to the side due to the brief running time. Radha Mitchell's character initially seems less predestined towards two-dimensionality, but there's no room in the tired murder plot for any back-story or solid characterisation. Rosamund Pike does what she can with the thankless role of Greer's wife, while Ving Rhames makes a strong impression as the leader of the resistance against the surrogates. James Cromwell's role is minor, but nevertheless his performance is assured.
It's clear that the creative team behind Surrogates wanted to deliver an astonishing and worthwhile sci-fi actioner. But the way the film addresses a number of meaningful issues fails to make much of an impact. While it's an enjoyable movie thanks to some quality action, and while it does achieve its goals on a very basic level, the ingenious premise is pushed aside too soon in favour of formula.