Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
October 2009

The future is airbrushed

'Surrogates' suffers from appalling special effects and the conspicuous absence of substance

Walt Disney Studios
Director: Jonathan Mostow
Screenplay: Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato, based on the graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele
Starring: Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, James Cromwell, Ving Rhames, Boris Kodjoe and James Francis Ginty
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 28 minutes
Opened September 25, 2009
(out of four)

The encroachment of technology on common society has long been public enemy No. 1 in science fiction, and the latest cautionary tale is Jonathan Mostow's Surrogates, based on the graphic novel of the same name.

Like the recent action thriller Gamer, Surrogates takes the current proliferation of bandwidth-based communication devices and vicarious living to an extreme but logical end. In this future, people - or about 98 percent of them - no longer exist in much of a physical reality, but act out their daily lives through lifelike robotic surrogates. They lie comfortably in the confines of their home, controlling every aspect of their surrogates by remote. They can do whatever they want without consequence. It's easy, it's convenient - and all wireless, too!

Presumably, the technology makes people's lives safer and more comfortable - but at what cost? That's the question posed by a fringe group called the Dreads, who reject the surrogates as an abomination against nature. Led by their leader, The Prophet (Ving Rhames), they have small territories set up across the nation where surrogates are not allowed.

Surrogacy isn't really called into question by the global citizenry - a fact that's threatened when a murder is committed that kills both the surrogate and its operator, previously thought to be an impossibility. And it's up to FBI agent Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) to find out how and why.

Surrogates is a fine concept, but it goes awry in almost every conceivable way - and its failures get increasingly hilarious.

We can start with the embarrassingly bad digital airbrushing on the surrogates. It feels like the filmmakers decided they wanted to get Willis on screen as much as possible (even though many people use surrogates who look nothing like themselves), only the airbrushed "perfected" version of Greer looked so putrid, they realized they had to go and soften everyone's faces for consistency's sake.

Whatever the case was, it's not only an eyesore - it completely undermines the surrogates as physical beings, which is what they are. If they were intended to be digital surrogates in a digital world, that visual approach might theoretically work, but that's not the case. They're meant to exist on the same plane of reality as everything else; instead, the surrogates look like animated facsimiles that might disappear at the push of a button.

With all that can be done with special effects, the digital airbrushing in Surrogates is an embarrassment. Understandably, the filmmakers wanted to give the surrogates a somewhat unnatural look - but quality prosthetics would have done a better job accomplishing the same thing, and wouldn't have so thoroughly ruined the world the film was attempting to create.

But the distorted visuals are hardly where the problems end. Surrogates plays like yet another film that has contempt for its own material. For all the possibilities there for the taking, the filmmakers reduce everything to its most generic parts. (I suppose this shouldn't be completely surprising, since the director and screenwriters have both, for example, played significant roles in ruining everything good about the Terminator franchise - with Mostow helming T3 and Michael Ferris and John Brancato scripting Terminator Salvation.)

But nevermind. In the case of this film, every thought-provoking possibility is left on the table. How has surrogacy truly affected the human psyche? What ethical and moral conundrums can be raised? What is this film saying about all this? And what about things like, say, class differences? We hear on a news broadcast that 98 percent of people now use a surrogate for daily use - but with the expense of owning and operating a surrogate, how is that possible?

The most interesting concept we get is a sort of thrift store where people can rent (or buy, I suppose) discarded surrogates, some of which only have limited capabilities. And yet the film uses that idea only as a bridge from one scene to another.

Even if the film had been more compelling from the beginning, it wouldn't have been enough to make up for the woefully obvious second-act twist, nor the inexplicable ending. Needless to say, I shant spill the details, but suffice it to say that the way the climax takes place makes no logical sense whatsoever, is far too easy to be plausible and relies largely on an absurd level of convenience.

The unfortunate part is, Surrogates is not a bad idea; it's a good one. Potentially a great one. I'm interested to pick up the graphic novel and see what Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele did with it At the very least, I can't imagine they could have done much worse than the film version.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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