I enjoyed Surrogates, the science-fiction thriller starring Bruce Willis, more than I expected, and I’m glad I saw it. I even enjoyed it more than the graphic novel it was based on.
That’s because I was always more involved in the cultural and societal changes than the murder mystery. It was easier to see how the world was different (and yet similar) on the screen instead of on the page. Although I appreciated the ways they changed the plot in the movie, too — I thought they tightened things up and made some of the motivations make more sense. Especially when it came to the wife, played by Rosamund Pike. Instead of simply being too vain to be seen without her robot double, she (and Bruce both) were mourning the death of their son. Plus, the changes were significant enough that I didn’t feel like I knew where everything was going and I was honestly surprised and involved by the fascinating plot twists and double-crosses.
In case you didn’t know, the story is set in the future, where everyone operates a robot surrogate for going out, working, playing, anything. The surrogates are supposed to be perfectly safe, allowing people to experience life with no danger, until someone uses a weapon that both disables the surrogates and kills the operator, sending death back through the virtual connection. Willis is FBI agent Tom Greer (instead of Atlanta cop Harvey Greer in the book), who investigates this first homicide in years, which brings him in contact with the inventor of the technology (James Cromwell) and the Prophet (Ving Rhames) who preaches against it.
The effects are impressive, both the big set pieces (things explode! helicopter crash! partially damaged Willis robot super-jumps in pursuit of suspect! the most entertaining car chase I’ve seen in a while, both thrilling and funny!) and the minor details.
I liked the way all the surrogates looked just a little plastic and shiny in their perfect beauty. (Although Willis’ surrogate looks like young Michael McKean to me. It’s the hair.) It reminded me of how real-life examples of supposed attractiveness too often look the same way, what with Botox and all. In the movie, when we’re seeing a street or a club full of these perfect people, it looked to me like it could be a Gossip Girl set or some other TV show or movie, so the nature of mediated unreality and how we define beauty left me pondering. Especially since the movie opens with lines about how we’re “not meant to experience the world through a machine.” It makes it feel really weird to be watching a movie, because that’s just what we’re doing. An imaginary world, to be sure, but still.
There are some other odd evocations in the film, I suspect unintentionally, but when the FBI helicopter crashes into the human-only compound, I thought about when the Philadelphia police bombed the MOVE organization‘s building in 1985. Then there was the scientist’s home, full of dark wood and spooky lights, which reminded me of Disney’s Haunted Mansion. (I’ve got Disney on the brain, because I’ll be going to Disney World in a few weeks, but they’re also the ones who made this movie through their Touchstone division.)
Sadly, while Willis is terrific as robot cop and ok when he’s required to show the trauma of going outside as a real person when the world around him is still plastic, he badly overacts the emotion required to show how he misses interacting with his real wife. (She’ll only deal with him through her prettier surrogate.) Like Bond, though, he suffers well when he’s pounded on by the various folks out to get him.
Also unfortunate is that this movie fails the Bechdel test — there are only two female characters, the wife and the FBI partner, and neither talk to each other. In fact, given the way her surrogate is hijacked, one of them spends significant time in the film being literally controlled by men.
The rest of my thoughts are rather random.
- I left wondering why the original death happened the way it did — the rest of the plot made sense to me, but the motive for that first one escaped me, until I realized I was assuming something a villain said was false but we were mean to take it as true.
- I still loved the scene from the trailer where all the robots drop, especially since it takes on new meaning in the movie context.
- At one point, Willis hijacks a Prius, which seems to have survived into the future unchanged.
- The Maguffin magic weapon looks a little too much like a dustbuster for me to take it seriously.
- When the movie started, it was a thrill to see “A Top Shelf Production” on the second screen.
- I liked the way the real people lived in pajamas and/or sweats, since they spent most of their time lying on couches driving their surrogates.
My final thought is a spoiler for the ending, so if you don’t want to see it, stop now. Otherwise, it’s in white text below. Let me remind you before reading it, I did enjoy the film overall, and I’m glad I saw it.
The ending struck me as supremely selfish. Willis causes an apocalypse because he can’t talk his wife out of her addiction, so he removes the surrogates from everyone. How will this all be cleaned up? How will society even continue, with no police and no anything? We’re not supposed to think about that, just be happy in their reconciliation, but I was left wondering what happened next, because what made this thriller interesting was its themes that encourage you to think about such things.