Saturday, February 16, 2013

Surrogates Review: Determinedly Pointless

I saw the Bruce Willis movie Surrogates a while back and it frustrated me. Enough so that I intended to write a post on it, but doing so has taken me several months because I wanted to gather my thoughts it was sort of unmemorable and I forgot about it.

Surrogates is the most frustrating type of movie because it is not straightforwardly bad such that one can simply mock it or discard it, rather it is quite watchable and competently constructed, yet falls drastically short of what it might have been. This is mostly because Surrogates has quite a strong and socially relevant premise.

The idea is that it's “the future” and humans, rather than living normal lives in our flawed meat-bodies, have adopted perfect android bodies as “surrogates” (title drop!) through which they experience and interact with the world from a neural interface at home. Not only is it more fun to be a physically perfect meta-human, but it also makes life a whole lot safer when anything bad that happens to your surrogate can be solved by, worst case, going out and buying another one. However, FBI agent Bruce Willis discovers the existence of a weapon which has the ability, when a surrogate is shot with it, to overload its system in a way that kills the real-life person operating it.

This all sounds dandy until one realizes that the last bit completely undoes everything about the premise of the film. What makes the world of Surrogates intriguing is the idea that one could live as an immortal avatar of one's self, which could have interesting ramifications for an action thriller of this sort. For example, how can you stop a terrorist who cannot die? To what lengths might someone go when they are in no physical danger? And how does the average hooligan behave when their actions can't physically harm others or be effectively traced back to them?(see: The Internet) None of these ideas are properly explored because the plot's central devise precisely nullifies all of the potential of its premise, and we are left with a standard action film in which people are shot and then die as a result.

On top of this, the film has one of the dumbest moments I've ever seen. Bruce Willis discovers that his boss might have been working with the bad guys all along (as one does in these sort of movies), so he wanders into FBI headquarters after getting suspended (as one does in these sort of movies), gets his boss alone in his office, and proceeds to stab him (or rather, his surrogate) in the back of the head so he can paw through his computer and transfer some incriminating files to a USB. After the download completes, he causally walks back into the main area just as one of his co-workers receives a call from an angry boss complaining about a stabbing incident and suggesting rather vocally that perhaps someone should stop our hero from leaving the premises. Then we cut to him driving away. Wait, what?

It's been clearly established previously that when harm comes to a surrogate, the user is instantly booted back to reality, and the boss is shown to still be sitting in his neural interface chair while he makes the call. This means that in order for the scene to play out the way it does, the boss finds himself at home having been “murdered,” then decides to wait a while and give our hero a fair chance, or maybe hunt around behind couch cushions to find his fairly large phone and then go back and sit in his neural interface chair, and then make the call. Meanwhile our hero casually walks through an office building full of employees who have just been informed that he killed their boss and should be immediately detained. No reason to show how that played out, just cut to him driving away. No, it's fine, no need for an action movie to show how its hero escaped from what appeared to be an inescapable situation. This is one of the few instances where showing our hero jump out a plate glass window or single-handedly fight off a bunch of trained FBI agents actually would have made more logical sense.

Aside from the largely wasted premise and some sprinkles of idiocy, Surrogates is actually decent. It mostly fails as an "ideas" movie, but as a straight action thriller it's moderately engaging, and it does at least get some mileage out of the concept that one doesn't know precisely who one is talking to when interacting with a surrogate. For example, this review was actually written by Ron Perlman.

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