**/**** Image C+ Sound A- Extras B
starring Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, Ving Rhames
screenplay by John Brancato & Michael Ferris, based on the graphic novel by Robert Vendetti and Brett Weldele
directed by Jonathan Mostow
by Ian Pugh Fittingly, Surrogates is a patchwork substitute for any number of recent films that informed it. (All things considered, the '05-'06 comic series from which the movie spawned may be the least of its sources.) Just look at its pedigree. Given that it's about the schism between mortal man and unstoppable machine, it's the second Terminator film for both director Jonathan Mostow (after Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) and star Bruce Willis (after Live Free or Die Hard), the third for screenwriters Michael Ferris and John Brancato (after T3 and Terminator Salvation), and perhaps the six-thousandth for 2009 alone--the latest in a long line of pictures that put the human soul behind the wheel of an automaton. Willis's Tom Greer is prescribed the usual problems--dead son, distant wife (Rosamund Pike)--of a rough-and-tumble movie cop, and from there, Surrogates cribs WALL·E's missive about the dangers of excessive comfort and The Dark Knight's casual nihilism in exploring the weakness of flesh-and-blood. Almost exclusively cobbled together from recent trends in American cinema, there's no denying its overfamiliarity--every twist and turn the movie has to offer is obvious at least forty-five minutes in advance. But as potentially the last straight action flick of the decade, Surrogates' derivative nature manages the improbable: it compacts the zeitgeist into a neat little package.
The action primarily takes place in a utopian Boston where lifelike android clones, originally meant to replace soldiers in the field, are made affordable to the general public as vehicles through which to lead ostensibly better lives. Users lie in bed all day, free from harm as they control robots that experience the outside world for them. "Surrogacy" has since overtaken everyday life to the point where human beings who walk around on their own are called ("Futurama" fans, take note) "meatbags," while the protestors thrown in self-imposed exile have become dangerous freedom-fighters-cum-terrorists known as the "Dreads." It seems the destruction of two surrogates has also resulted in the deaths of their operators--and one of the victims happens to be the son of the reclusive scientist who perfected surrogacy (James Cromwell, playing his second Geppetto-god after I, Robot). Detective Greer smells a conspiracy, and he'll have to adjust to life as a meatbag to solve the case. A post-9/11 fear of "going outside," an unspoken desire to keep your head in the sand while the world spirals towards ruin, and all the pent-up madness that results; Surrogates doesn't come close to an original thought in dealing with this stuff (it's actually a little tone deaf, to tell the truth), but it's kind of impressive that they were able to touch on it at all under a strict mandate of car chases and happy endings.
This isn't to say it always consciously operates on a deeper level. You might find Surrogates' most intentional profundity within Willis himself, here granted another opportunity to poke fun at his image as a fading action star: Introduced as a wax figure in a ridiculous wig, he's eventually revealed as a bald, grizzled old man who bleeds and tires just like the rest of us. Nothing that hasn't been said before, but if it's possible to encapsulate the Aughties' model of "pure" mainstream cinema into a single image, Surrogates may have accidentally stumbled upon it as Willis's (this time literal) robocop chases a perp through a District 9 ghetto, leaping over tall buildings in a single bound--one arm carrying an assault rifle, the other arm torn clean off. There's nothing more to say about how we want to view our cinematic heroes as they traverse a wasteland where innocence is lost for good--regular joes who are irreparably damaged, yet righteous and invincible. A nostalgic shadow hidden under a very thin coat of self-awareness.
That such images should be indiscriminately crammed into a half-baked cyberpunk P.I. story is probably the worst thing about the whole movie. There's nothing quite as embarrassing as Terminator Salvation's unsubtle paean to the vulnerability of the human heart, but Surrogates is still wracked with sledgehammer revelations about its clones used as barricades to hide one's own physical and psychological unattractiveness. What truth is Tom's beautiful partner (Radha Mitchell) hiding behind the guise of her own surrogate? The answer won't shock you in the slightest. (Not to mention that the film's more deliberate dips into significance can be severely idiotic--a clear visual link from Barack Obama's campaign to the Dreads' mad pontificator Prophet (Ving Rhames) seems like a screed against trusting political authority, only to quickly veer off into the territory of "secret Muslim" conspiracies.) Yeah, okay, living vicariously is hardly a way to live at all. Nothing we couldn't piece together from the trailers alone. Then again, when most of your action-scene participants are literal rag dolls to be beaten and tossed around without consequence, you automatically acknowledge a distinct lack of urgency to the entire affair, an unavoidable familiarity--resulting in a bizarre scenario whereby everything and nothing are simultaneously at stake. So what happens once the safety net disappears? What happens when humanity is once again directly imperilled? In two months it will be forgotten, but credit where credit is due: Surrogates is such an end-all/be-all that it puts forth an interesting, if not entirely successful, effort to break the cycle of the same old shit. Originally published: September 25, 2009.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Buena Vista brings Surrogates to Blu-ray in a 2.40:1, 1080p transfer I can only describe as difficult. As director Jonathan Mostow says in his feature-length commentary, the movie boasts some 800 visual effects shots, most of which involved digital facelifts to give the actors a more uncanny appearance. But while the surrogates do look plastic-fantastic, that airbrushed quality almost never seems unique to skin, resulting in a cruddy, eye-straining image only exacerbated by the picture's noir aesthetics. (Blacks bleed together in deep, detail-swallowing pools.) According to the IMDb, Surrogates' D/I was 2k, which seems low for a contemporary, F/X-heavy film, and artifacts abound--chiefly, solarized whites--that I haven't seen since the early-'90s, when outputting CGI to film was a relatively new procedure. Grain? Mercurial, at best. An aptly imperfect presentation, perhaps, but an off-putting one just the same. While the mix itself is surprisingly hemispheric except during a pivotal chase scene through a junkyard, the attendant 5.1 DTS-HD audio sounds clean, rich, and suitably aggressive. On another track, find the aforementioned yakker from Mostow, who does eventually run out of material and start narrating the flick but has a lot of interesting things to say until such time. I was particularly intrigued to hear that he fished a few wide-angle lenses out of the Panavision vault that hadn't been used since the '60s (shooting in Super35 instead of anamorphic, one presumes, to accommodate them), all in pursuit of angles straight out of the John Frankenheimer playbook. There are probably more "inevitable dashes of pretension" than I can count, although even at his loftiest--Mostow talks about hiring a "mind coach" for the cast to make their performances less human--he's not overbearing.
Video-based extras begin with "A More Perfect You" (15 mins., HD), a combination making-of/speculative piece in which various experts talk up or demonstrate current surrogate technology. Prof. Hiroshi Ishiguro, who's adapted MoCap techniques to lifelike models, says he wanted to learn what it is to be human by building a robot--speaking for each of these would-be Frankensteins in the process, methinks. We also get to see before-and-after footage of Bruce Willis as a "synthespian" that's quite revealing, in no small part because his female co-stars are protected from the same sudden exposure of their alleged flaws. I must ask, though: if a racecar driver were granted the gift of immortality via an avatar, as speculated, would he or she in fact still be a racecar driver? (Sort of like: is a gambler who cheats to win still a gambler?) "Breaking the Frame: A Graphic Novel Comes to Life" (7 mins., HD) is a truncated-feeling piece on the film's comic-book origins, featuring interviews with author Robert Vendetti, illustrator Brett Weldele, and others including Mostow, who notes compromises had to be made in the adaptation without elaborating on what those were. Four deleted scenes (5 mins. in total) would've maybe belaboured the mutual animosity raging between mechas and orgas, but I appreciated the more definitive glimpse of the Radha Mitchell character's human counterpart. (These elisions, for what it's worth, are lo-res outputs from editing software, superfluously encoded in 1080p.) Breaking Benjamin's tie-in video for "I Will Not Bow" (HD, DD 5.1) joins a sneak peek at the "Lost" season 5 BD, the awesome teaser for Tron Legacy (referred to as "VFX concept test footage"), and trailers for Alice in Wonderland, Everybody's Fine, and the studio's Blu-ray slate in rounding out the platter--the latter three previews launching automatically on startup as well. All this ephemera is native 1080p. Originally published: January 18, 2010.