Without any real clear direction that I wanted to take for the rest of this year, I decided that I would work on clearing out the mini backlog of movies that I’ve purchased over the past several months and even years that I keep putting off for one reason or another. I also put four movies up on a Twitter poll and even though there were only a few votes, this film won. Surrogates was barely a blip on the radar for me, it came out against Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and also when my daughter was 2 and we weren’t going out to the theaters any time soon. It was a moderately high-budgeted movie that flopped here in the US, but ultimately made a small profit when including its worldwide gross. It’s got a fascinating concept and does a lot to build this slightly futuristic world, but then it gets bogged down by the action and falls flat on its face with an oversimplified ending.
One of the best things that Surrogates has for it is the overall high concept. In the near future, science has developed a system of robotics that can be controlled and operated remotely in a pseudo-reverse-Matrix sort of situation. These robots essentially behave just like regular people except they don’t get sick, don’t transmit germs, don’t age, and can look like whatever you want them to look like. But stepping into the world of the movie, there’s always this element of unreality and the film captures this very subtly. All the surrogates have this slight uncanny valley-ness to them whether it’s a slight CGI sheen that gets rid of the actor’s facial imperfections or something similar. It’s especially notable with Bruce Willis’s surrogate who has this wrinkle-free face and awful-looking hair. We get to see this world full of beautiful people, which in a way is just like any other Hollywood movie, except this amplifies and comments on it. There’s even a great moment once Willis’s surrogate gets destroyed and he has to venture out into the real world. This is the first time he’s had to interact with other people without this extra layer of security and he gets hit with a wall of anxiety. It’s like everyone is on the internet while still interacting in the real world at the same time. Unfortunately this aspect of the world isn’t explored further and Willis cures himself of his anxiety by the next scene.
Honestly, this film has a major problem with setting up this complex world with a fascinating concept of these surrogates, and then smashes the concept to the ground with an oversimplified answer. Just like Willis’s anxiety, it’s cured by the very next scene. The same thing happens with the overarching mystery of the film. Ultimately, the villain of the film is setting out to destroy all of the surrogates and their users, because he sees them as an addiction that needs to be cleansed so that the world can heal. Willis is able to save all the users, but decides against saving all the surrogates so that this virus completely wipes out every surrogate across the globe, since conveniently they are all created by a single company. It’s just such an oversimplified, happy ending that it really does a disservice to the rest of the film that came before it. There are plenty of issues that they could have explored via these surrogates, especially addiction, but it’s all just covered at a very surface level. They even mention how nothing the surrogates feel are supposed to affect the users, but there’s a scene midway through the film where a group of people are apparently getting high by shocking the hell out of their surrogates. That pretty much seems like it’s affecting the user, and the way Willis reacts to it makes it seem like it’s a very well known practice.
But since this film does eschew a lot of the high concept sci-fi in favor of the action and mystery, how do those aspects of the film hold up? To be honest, only moderately. There are a few fun moments with the two big chase sequences, one where surrogate Willis is chasing the perp into Dread territory – localized districts that somehow have their own jurisdiction where surrogates are not allowed – and one where human Willis is chasing his partner’s surrogate who has been taken over by the real villain. But the first one has an odd disconnect with the level of danger. There is a weapon involved that can actually harm Willis’s human body, and his surrogate is equipped with superhuman abilities, but there’s still a large sense that he’s never in any real danger. The second chase works much better and even has a few great moments of comic relief that helps sell the reality of the world. At one point, it becomes a car chase and Willis ends up plowing through several pedestrians, but since they are all surrogates, they are barely phased and treat it more like an inconvenience rather than a life-threatening situation. Getting back to the mystery aspect of the film, that one is also on the more mediocre side of things, there are a few shocking reveals here and there, but for the most part it’s part and parcel with a typical dystopian sci-fi story where all the clues are handed to the main protagonist and they keep leading him to a much larger conspiracy than he ever expected.
When I was halfway through this movie, I was curious about how people reacted towards this movie, and when I say people I mean film bloggers who follow me on Twitter. I asked about other people’s opinions because I had the general impression that it was a failure of a movie, but at the time I was really enjoying the world that it was setting up. But once I finished it, I could totally understand the reactions of those who answered, who mainly said that it was alright but mostly forgettable. One even compared it to the Purge, which has a similar one-note concept but has had a few movies to help flesh that concept out and explore different aspects of it. This movie only had one opportunity to do that and even shot itself in the foot where it wouldn’t be allowed to explore it further in later movies unless they went the prequel route. It’s a film that doesn’t take any chances, there are great ideas that could be explored, but it only scratches the surface. The relationship between Willis and his wife is a perfect example. He hasn’t seen her actual body in years, and she harbors guilt for their son who died in a car accident with the implied detail that she was driving, as her scars and multiple medications reinforce. But the resolution to that conflict also feels shallow. His wife isn’t really allowed to learn anything, she’s merely forced to leave her surrogate shield behind. And while it would have been a much darker ending, it would have made more sense for the character if she would have committed suicide as the film initially implied, it would show that not all the consequences of Willis’s actions were bright and cheery, but that likely wouldn’t have tested well with audiences so we’re left with a weaker story as a result. Such a shame. Until next time, this has been Bubbawheat for Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights.