Surrogates: film with interesting sci-fi concept never quite feels genuine

Jonathan Mostow, “Surrogates” (2009)

“Surrogates” has an interesting sci-fi concept with potential for philosophical speculation about the nature of being and reality in the style of “Blade Runner” and “The Matrix”. In he near future, everyone is living a life of virtual reality through surrogate clone robots. A few humans insist on living life for real off the grid in anti-surrogate zones but generally people find it necessary to function in mainstream society through being jacked up to robots that engage in the messy business of interacting with others and transacting everyday urban Western life. As a result, people can indulge in all the sensual vices of life without suffering the consequences like drug addiction and sexually transmitted diseases. No-one dies and violent crime is unheard of because if a surrogate should “die”, its user can sign up for a new surrogate. Until one day when two surrogates die and their human operators die at the same time. One of these human operators happens to be the son of the Dr Lionel Carter who invented surrogates so the FBI dispatches senior agent Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) and his partner Jennifer Peters (Radha Mitchell) to investigate the double murder. The agents determine that one Miles Strickland used a special weapon to kill the surrogates and their operators. Tom tries to arrest Strickland but his helicopter crashes in an anti-surrogate zone called the Dread Zone and his surrogate is killed by its enraged inhabitants.

After Tom recuperates from his injuries, he rejects a new surrogate and tries to solve the mystery of how Strickland obtained the special weapon. Meanwhile Strickland himself is killed by the leader of the Dread Zone, a man who is known as The Prophet (Ving Rhames). The Prophet takes ownership of the special weapon. As Tom is to learn, the special weapon was made by the same company that makes the surrogates under a special government contract. Its physics aren’t fully explained but the weapon not only disables surrogates but disables the brains of their operators, turning the cerebral tissues into mush. While Tom is piecing the mystery together, his partner is killed and an unknown person takes over her surrogate. The Prophet then sends the special weapon to her.

Eventually Tom discovers that Dr Carter (James Cromwell) has been using The Prophet and Jennifer to carry out his plan to destroy all surrogates and with them, their human operators. Can he stop Carter in time from wiping out surrogacy and humanity in revenge for the death of his son? And even if he does, is he willing to allow other humans, including his estranged wife (Rosamund Pike), to continue using surrogates even though he has come to loathe the whole concept of surrogates and their purposes?

There’s a little satire about modern human society and its obsession with beauty, self-indulgence without responsibility and consequences, and the disconnect between humans and the real world, and how it affects their psychology and leads to the ultimate addiction to a false world over the real world. On the whole though, the film is disappointing in its failure to grapple seriously with its subject matter and what it implies for the human condition. Formulaic action and melodrama substitute for proper inquiry, sustained character development and an original plot. Although Willis tries hard, he is hampered by a half-hearted script that aspires to Blade Runner greatness but isn’t quite sure that it deserves to be on the same level and gives up. The film tries to be fun as well but even the fun seems cautious and tentative rather than ballsy.

The film lacks spark and feels flat in spite of the padding that the script-writers put into it – there’s a small sub-plot about Tom’s attempts to reconcile with his wife over the past death of their own son and his insistence that she present as her natural self instead of her prettified surrogate self – and even though it’s not a long film, it drags in parts with little action. Sections of the film feel dated with a Seventies-ish party scene in which Mrs Greer and some friends partake of some exotic party drugs and the filmstock used cheapens the film’s look. The politics involving The Prophet and his followers could have come out of an old late-Sixties / early-Seventies film. (There’s a bit of subtle biting humour when The Prophet, a consistent advocate for real life over virtual life, comes to a bad end.)

The best and most surreal part of the film comes right at the climax which happily deviates from what would otherwise have been a pedestrian script, yet is in keeping with Tom’s character yearning for a world in which real humans interact without having to hide behind body masks. At this point, the ending is open-ended (unusual for a B-grade Hollywood flick – for once the script-writers beat back the bean counters) and viewers get a sense of the real work that humans must do in order to rediscover their humanity. Dr Carter may not have achieved everything he set out to do but in a sense he can rest in peace knowing that the damage his invention has done has been ended.

In its own tentative way, the film reaches out for the stars … but fails in its efforts. At least it does raise some questions about the nature of human existence, what is real and what is not real, and leaves us wondering what it could have achieved.

 

 

 

 

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