Friday, November 26, 2010

Surrogates

I'm a dork. No, really, you can pick your jaw up off the floor. It's shocking, but true. Even with my near-encyclopedic knowledge of all things geeky in the movie world, I was surprised to find out that Surrogates was based on a comic book series for the same name. Even more shocking, I had never heard of the people that made this comic. Hell, I'd never even heard of the comic's publisher. Are those good signs or bad signs, I wonder?

Surrogates takes place in the future. Well, maybe. A year isn't given, but the introductory scenes give us several news reports with "Fourteen years ago" and the like given for reference, counting down until we have reached the present day. Congratulations, everybody! The present day has android robot things! Just like 1957 predicted! Let's just say that this takes place in an alternate reality and leave the question of time for another day. In the present day, people don't interact face-to-face (hey, you're reading a blog, so you know that), they use a robotic proxy called a surrogate to live their lives. These surrogates look like people, but have android insides, so you can drink ranch dressing all day, e'er day at home and the person that everyone sees is your perfect bodied surrogate. Basically, you lie down in a tanning bed (with scientific things touching your head) and you project your consciousness into the surrogate. That means there is now no violent crime or sexually transmitted diseases. Best of all, overweight male internet perverts who like to pose as naughty schoolgirls in chatrooms can now have a naughty schoolgirl surrogate --- your surrogate doesn't have to look anything like you.  Hooray!

And that's a key point. The movie begins with a surrogate being destroyed by a weapon wielded by a non-robotic person. Ordinarily, that would just be an inconvenience for the user. This time, though, the weapon somehow killed the user, miles away. Obviously, a weapon that can kill someone through their supposedly risk-proof surrogate is a big deal, so the FBI take the case. Agent Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) and Agent Jennifer Peters (Radha Mitchell) begin by following the clues. The only surrogate-unfriendly folks around are in the Dread Reservation (named, I hope, because they don't wash their hair) and are lead by the charismatic (and humbly) titled Prophet (Ving Rhames). The possible motive for the crime gets a little more complicated when Agent Greer learns that the dead surrogate is the son of the creator of surrogates, Lionel Canter (James Cromwell), and the son was using one of Lionel's usual surrogates that night. So, was the murder due to philosophical and religious reasons, or was it an attempt for a rival to eliminate Lionel from the business world? Or was it something completely different?

Okay, I have to ask. Shouldn't this movie have been named "Avatar"? Sure, I understand why that might have been a copyright issue, but the concepts behind this and that Smurf movie are pretty similar. In both cases, people get hooked up to a machine and live their lives through an artificially made creature. I would have thought that, with the obvious social commentary in this movie, that they would have chosen "Avatar" as a nod to the digital age. To be fair, this is an adaptation of a comic book, so I guess it should be the writers of the comic that are criticized for their vocabulary. Why do I care? I just enjoy when obviously different movies share identical titles, like The Patriot --- one had Mel Gibson (accent-free Aussie), while another had Steven Seagal (charisma-free lawman). You would think that Seagal was riding on Gibson's coattails here, releasing some straight-to-DVD crap in the hopes that someone would rent his movie by accident, but no. SS beat MG to the punch by two years. The more you know...!

Back to the movie at hand. I wasn't terribly impressed by the parts that made up Surrogates. Yes, Bruce Willis is a pretty solid actor, but he is no guarantee of a good movie (does The Jackal ring any bells?). I'm not quite sure why Radha Mitchell keeps getting cast in so many movies as a female lead. She's not super attractive and she has the kind of range you usually need to be smoking hot to get away with. At least here, she has an excuse for being disconnected from her character, since it's a surrogate. The rest of the cast spends relatively little time onscreen. Ving Rhames, who is often able to salvage a bad movie by being completely awesome, wasn't able to deliver here; perhaps his power is derived from his baldness and his huge dread-locked wig and cotton candy-sized beard acted as an awesomeness buffer between him and the camera. James Cromwell is fine, even if his character is the source of so much of this movie's stupidity. Rosamund Pike, who plays Agent Greer's wife, is supposed to act as the story's emotional anchor, but instead supplies the film with most of its sappiness.

I think it's pretty clear that I wasn't a fan of director Jonathan Mostow's work with his cast. I did like the look and pace of the movie, though. In fact, I really liked the first forty minutes or so, to the point where I was starting to think that I had discovered an under-appreciated gem. In that time span, the movie introduces a murder mystery, dipped deep inside of a sci-fi world, that did not appear to have anything in particular to say about that robot world. The technology introduced was pretty cool and it is a logical extension of what we already do as a society. I found it interesting that all of the main characters (except for Lionel) use surrogates that look very much like themselves. It's a little weird that Greer's surrogate has a head of blond hair on Bruce Willis' noggin, but I find it hilarious that Greer would choose a haircut and hairline that resemble no haircut Bruce Willis has had in the past thirty years. Some of the little touches are pretty cool, too, like police officers getting night vision upgrades.

And then...something dumb happened. Have you ever watched a movie where the bad guy is ridiculously stupid? I'm not talking about the normal James Bond-esque monologuing (although there is a bit of that), I'm talking about a villain taking steps early in the movie to ensure that the hero would end up foiling his evil plot. Do you want to know stupid? Here's stupid --- the villain, at one point, tells Agent Greer that he is too late, and that nothing can halt his evil plan now. That ignores the fact that there is plenty of time for Agent Greer to halt the evil plan, and he can thank the villain for committing suicide and forcing him to not waste precious seconds in witty hero-villain banter.

That's some stupid stuff, but I would have been more forgiving if the film had stayed on its hard-boiled crime route. Instead, the second half of the film spends a lot of time focusing on Greer's marriage and the difficulty they are having dealing with the death of their young son. Boo! Screw that noise! If I wanted to watch a movie about grieving parents, I wouldn't have selected the movie with androids. Detective stories are, almost by definition, all about the mystery. This movie starts out as a detective yarn, but then starts worrying about feelings, about the least detective-y things imaginable. And to make it worse, it was a clumsy and painfully transparent subplot.

The imagination shown in the film's first half ends up coming back to haunt it in the second half.  I liked that workaholics just leave their surrogates to charge at work; why waste time bringing them home, if your next move in the morning will be back at work?  That cleverness just got my mind working, which helped me notice a lot of failed opportunities for similar future design.  Riddle me this: why would surrogates need to drive cars? Why not build models with rocket-propelled roller blades in their feet? Or design some sort of tube technology; if personal safety is no longer an issue, public transportation has a lot of fresh opportunities. They could even ride in buses that treat the surrogates like luggage. In short, having a robot drive an SUV in the city seems like a waste of fuel and space.

The absolute worst thing about this movie is that it could have been so cool. Before it settled for a B-movie plot at the forty-minute mark, this movie was full of ideas and felt like a robotic noir. From what I understand, the film takes several severe liberties with the source material, so this could be blames on the writers, John Brancato and Michael Ferris, who worked with Mostow on Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Bad screenplays are nothing new to Brancato and Ferris; they share partial screenwriting and story credits for Catwoman. Still, the movie, like a hillbilly child, had potential until it got involved with the wrong sort of people, so I will be generous and give it

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