[26 January 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s the future shock situation destined to doom mankind. We have been warned about it ever since reality was capable of being recreated, virtually. Everyone, from scientists to sociologists have told us that living life vicariously through avatars, digital selves, or other forms of computer generated alter egos will create a catastrophic downward spiral where everyday existence is substituted for a fictional world locked inside some computer mainframe. People will go from active participants in a community of their own making to drone easily manipulated by outside forces both beneficial and menacing - mostly menacing. From The Matrix to Gamer, Hollywood can’t get enough of this concept. It seems to be the go-to sci-fi theme for movies looking to trade on technology and terror while skimping on storyline and other elements of substance.
At first glance, Jonathan Mastow’s take on the cult graphic novel Surrogates (new to DVD and Blu-ray) would seem like yet another example of this motion picture assembly line ideal. It stars an A-list superstar (Bruce Willis) as an FBI agent investigating the death of the son of a famous robot scientist (James Cromwell). Along with his no-nonsense partner (Radha Mitchell), the aging cop lives in a time not too far from now where everyone is plugged in to lifelike automatons. Humans don’t venture out of their homes. They no longer literally interact with each other. As these ‘surrogates’ replace actual people, crime has disappeared down while hedonism has skyrocketed. This spurs the ire of the ‘dread’ community - a rebel set of flesh and blood individuals lead by a messianic figure (Ving Rhames) who wants to end the domination of these metal and plastic personas once and for all - and they will do so by any means necessary.
On the surface, Surrogates has all the slop and spectacle of your typical Tinseltown action eye candy. There’s a decided lack of quiet and an overabundance of sensationalized CG spoilage. But if you peel back the layers, if you actual “listen” to what the movie has to say vs. the non-stop bombast it frequently throws at the screen like pyrotechnic pot shots, you may actually see it’s significance. Like Steven Spielberg’s brilliant A.I. , which asked us to confront our concepts of what is ‘human’, Surrogates struggles to successfully explain what’s it’s like to be a ‘human being’. It occasionally misses the mark and swings wide when a far more subtle stroke would work better. But instead of delivering nothing but mindless mayhem and sleek robot-fu, Mastow manages to instill some depth and deliberateness into his otherwise predictable popcorn product.
As Mastow says in his telling audio commentary, found on the recent digital release, Willis is the key to getting it all to work - and he’s 100% right. No one can sell a slightly surreal, borderline unbelievable idea better than the man who made us accept the end-of-the-world Möbius strip known as 12 Monkeys. As Tom Greer, Willis handles two totally different roles - a younger version of himself, plastic without being totally mechanical and a downtrodden and defeated man whose lost his son, and as a result, his surrogate-addicted wife, to the knotty new world order. The whole ancillary whodunit angle, the murder of Dr. Lionel Canter’s kid and the conspiracy theory surrounding his murder, is all pulp and pretense. We can see where things are going from the minute we learn about surrogate interchangeability (read: not all automatons are modeled after, or controlled by, their ‘owners’) and the pockets of “dread” terrorism.
Mastow constantly reminds us that the whole detective storyline, lifted from the comic created by Robert Venditti and Robert Weldele, contains elements that don’t really lend themselves to message. In fact, he often seems flustered by the need to include helicopter crashes and other F/X flecked stuntwork. Sure, Surrogates is supposed to sell itself to the aging adolescent crowd who could actually care less about the whole subtext situation in movies, but Mastow really does want to explore said options. He is far more intrigued about what has happened to Greer and his wife (both before and after the tragedy) than illustrating how surrogates are manufactured. In fact, for him, the most intriguing notion exists in the fatalistic connection between people and their false identity. He wants to make I, Robot the book, not I, Robot the Will Smith starting vehicle.
Surrogates seems to suggest that there is almost a suicidal, psychological addiction to being disconnected from humanity. We can see how desperate Greer’s wife is, how much she needs the escape of another persona. Similarly, the main villain, when he is exposed, has also used various alter egos to try and amplify/destroy the surrogate condition. All throughout the movie, we see images meant to suggest fantasy but end up illustrating hopelessness. And then there is the main narrative thread - Greer et al live in a world where NO ONE, except for a reactionary chose few - live outside their homes. Instead, they are insulated and cocooned, hooked up to machines and atrophying while endlessly perfect examples of their Id run around, simulating life. How depressing.
The best material in Surrogates comes after Greer loses his dandy detective alternative and must venture out into the city himself. The deleted scenes offer some additional insight into the way in which humanity has been subjugated in favor of these manufactured examples of ‘beautiful people’, and Mastow explains that make-up and digital work was used to make the surrogates more ‘flawless’ and the real people more pock-marked and pathetic. We are supposed to see our future, our desire to ‘be something else’ trumping the truth and reinventing the whole notion of self-awareness. Indeed, how can someone truly get to know or be themselves if they spend most of their day locked in a room reinvented as a technologically ideal?
Certainly, Surrogates is not perfect. Ving Rhames overplays almost every scene he is in, giving away much of his narrative appeal and importance. Similarly, Radha Mitchell comes across as a plotpoint approximation, around to jumpstart the last act while getting little of Willis’ narrative worth (a deleted scene helps remedy this). While Mastow debated keeping the dark tone of the graphic novel (things do not end well for this surrogate-obsessed world) he wanted to keep Greer’s arc front and center - and as a result, hopeful and optimistic - simply because Willis’ acting tended toward such a sentiment. It may not make for patented speculative fiction, since most examples of this metaphor-drive entertainment play right along the cusp of defeat, but it does stay true to what this storyline suggests.
Years from now, when virtual reality is perfected and patented, we will have a chance to see just how accurate the doom and gloom of the late 20th/early 21st century truly was. Until then, we can enjoy something like Surrogates. While not a solidly triumphant example of the idea, it’s still offers some strong food for thought.