Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Surrogates (2009) - Movie Review - 7/10

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Surrogates takes the basic premise of what would happen if almost everyone in our world were able to live their lives through an idealised robotic replacement. These replacements feed each person all of the sensations required to feel everything as normal, while their real body lies in a sensory chair at home. In this world, actual murder and most crime have been made pointless, because any crimes carried out, are done so via 'surrogates' on 'surrogates' (So presumably most crime would class as vandalism and criminal damage).

Bruce Willis (Die Hard, The Sixth Sense, TV's Moonlighting) and Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black, Silent Hill, TV's Neighbours) play a pair of police officers tasked with investigating the murder of two people whose deaths occurred via the destruction of their surrogate bodies. This leads to a relatively straight forward plot involving a mysterious new weapon and a mad genius intent on mass murder. Meanwhile Willis' character re-discovers what it means to be human when he becomes separated from his surrogate body.

Where Surrogates succeeds, is in having a somewhat original story concept (For cinema, at any rate). The initial idea is extremely interesting, and does make us think about how life would be led in such a situation. Where the film fails somewhat, is in its execution. Initially it is off-putting with the actors all looking waxy and perfect, their emotions rather wooden and their physical motion always perfect, and begs the question, how many people would live out their lives this way, when the alternate versions of themselves are lacking in many basic aspects of human appeal? Perhaps this is a moot point, given that many people live such lives already online, addicted to part time lives that are severely limited in comparison to the real world. On the positive side, this does all create an effective contrast later in the film, when our lead begins to return to life in the normal world as his human self.

Other films that question our humanity and what it means to be human in different ways, such as District 9 or The Sixth Day, avoid giving us easy answers. They present us with the possibilities in such a way that there is no clear cut right or wrong, yes or no. Surrogates makes its message far too direct. “It is wrong to live life through a Surrogate!”. There are no ambiguities about the lifestyle presented in the film. No 'what ifs?'.

A lot of the general concept points are also skirted around. Why is murder practically non-existent?Although it seems reasonable to say that most crimes of passion and anger would be drastically cut, most reasons for other murders would not change. For example, political murders, revenge, money, etc. Also, what about muscle wastage for Surrogate users? A simple explanation that something in the seats keeps muscles active would have sufficed, but there is none.

Bruce Willis looks somewhat unnerving in his surrogate form, essentially a 'Young Bruce' via the miracle of modern CGI effects. Whilst the other actors get similar treatment, though obviously to a lesser degree. Unfortunately the lead characters seem a little underdeveloped. The troubled relationship between Willis' and his wife, played by the reliable Rosamund Pike (Die Another Day, TV's Wives & Daughters), is rather cliché and should have been explored in more depth. Radha Mitchell's character seems almost unused and superfluous, simply a plot-device for the finale. Likewise, the villain and his motivations come as no surprise and merely make us wish for something more original. It could be argued that James Cromwell (Babe, Star Trek: First Contact, I, Robot) is cast in practically the same role as he had in I, Robot, in order to undermine our expectations, but this seems rather too subtle for Surrogates and I suspect it is simply a case of bad typecasting.

Unfortunately, Surrogates' greatest weakness is its finale. It certainly pulls the old 'Deus Ex Machina' trick to some extent, with little set-up or reasonable explanation as to why things would work the way they do. Yes, we are given explanations, but they appear rather suddenly and conveniently, everything is concluded far too simplistically. Not to mention a voice over at the end stating that everyone is okay, after a situation that really implies a whole host of potential problems. What about those flying aircraft via surrogates? What about doctors using surrogates who are in the middle of operating on live people? What about babies in hospital wards, or mothers giving birth, where the doctors and nurses would likely be surrogates? I won't give away the plot by explaining why I am asking these questions, but if you see it, you will most likely find yourself asking the same things.

On the whole, the effects are excellent, though there are one or two extremely obvious green-screen environments that pull us out of the story. The action is all fun, though nothing especially original. It may sound like I'm being extra hard on Surrogates, as I did enjoy it. I enjoyed the originality, but as you find yourself questioning the story afterwards, it quickly loses its charm. It is better than much of its recent competition, but is perhaps most frustrating due to its under-used potential. Again, as with so many films of recent years, this may be symptomatic of its graphic novel roots. A medium rife with high concepts and visual flair, but often lacking the basic thought, character and emotion of normal literary fare.

The director, Johnathon Mostow (Breakdown, Terminator 3), is functional, taking few risks and showing little of the potential he once showed years ago with Breakdown. Surrogates is not a bad film, but it has (ironically, considering its subject matter) been made on automatic, when it had the opportunity to be so much more. It is enjoyable, and certainly worth seeing, but don't expect it to stay with you for very long.

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