January 20, 2010
For every Die Hard (1986) or 12 Monkeys (1995), there are all kinds of 16 Blocks (2006) and Hostage (2005) – forgettable genre films that populate Bruce Willis’ extensive filmography. Surrogates (2009) is the latest paycheck film for the veteran actor. It aspires to be something thought-provoking, like 12 Monkeys but at the end of the day the ambitious screenplay also wants to be an exciting thriller and can’t quite merge the two aspects successfully.
Set in the near future, Surrogates imagines a world where 98% of the population uses synthetic people to represent themselves in real life. You can now look as beautiful as you want and don’t have to leave the comfort of your home, thereby risking harm. The crime rate drops dramatically as society moves towards a kind of utopia. However, there are a growing minority of people led by Zaire Powell a.k.a. “The Prophet” (Rhames) that believe that these replicants are an “invasion of the inhuman.”
Trouble occurs when a surrogate collage student affiliated with the reclusive Dr. Lionel Canter (Cromwell), creator of the world’s replicants, is killed. FBI Agents Greer (Willis) and his partner Peters (Mitchell) investigate the incident and discover a complicated mystery behind this crime. The FBI discover that the operator of the student surrogate was also killed – he’s directly linked to his replicant – something that is considered impossible. It turns out that the student was the son of Dr. Canter. When Greer’s surrogate is destroyed while chasing a potential suspect (Noseworthy) through a reservation of anti-surrogates, he is almost killed in real life. He’s suspended for trespassing and decides to continue his investigation au natural.
Radha Mitchell is appropriately icy as an FBI fembot while Bruce Willis tones down his wisecracking action hero persona to something approaching a flawed character in the vein of 12 Monkeys. Of note, Willis’ surrogate looks oddly enough like a cross between a life-sized Ken doll and the protagonist he played in Breakfast of Champions (1998).
Director Jonathan Mostow does a nice job of establishing this exotic world with eerie shots like that of a subway car occupied by slightly plastic-looking replicants all staring straight-ahead like obedient, soulless robots. He is a solid genre director responsible for the road rage thriller Breakdown (1996) and did a fairly decent job with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003). While the screenwriters seem to aspire to make some deep statement about what it means to be human and the dehumanizing effect of technology a la Blade Runner (1982), Mostow’s direction only comes to life when the conspiracy thriller aspects kicks in. As a result, the script is sometimes at odds with the film’s direction and so Surrogates comes across like the popular video game The Sims as if programmed by Philip K. Dick when it could have been so much more, like Children of Men (2006).
There is an audio commentary by director Jonathan Mostow. He talks about the practical and stylistic reasons he decided to shoot the film in Boston. He points out that this is the most visual effects-heavy film he’s ever worked on and most of it was done on the actors. Mostow wanted to get away from the shaky, hand-held camerawork currently en vogue in favour of 1960’s era John Frankenheimer (i.e. Seconds). Mostow speaks eloquently and knowledgeably on this informative track.
“I Will Not Bow” music video by Breaking Benjamin. This very Linkin Park-sounding song features a standard movie tie-in video that mixes footage of the band playing with clips from the film.