The problem with this adaptation of Robert Venditi and Brett Weldele’s graphic novel Surrogates isn’t in the story but the decision to streamline the whole narrative into an absurdly brief 85 minute film (not including end credits).
Millions were spent to recreate the dystopian world where humans have progressed from playing interactive videogames to creating robotic avatars of themselves through which they engage in life in the external world. Sometimes, as with Det. Tom Greer (Bruce Willis, who’s very good), when the robot comes home and is returned to its power pad, the operator gets up, takes a pee, and grabs something to eat before interacting with his wife, and heading off to bed before another day of work-by-proxy.
It’s an intriguing premise about a social society existing only through idyllic representations of their operators, with each avatar bearing smoothened out facial features that make them shimmer like animated mannequins.
The real humans, in turn, have become socially inept, physically mottled like underfed plants, and suffer from severe anxiety disorders that make a simple walk down a street an utterly terrifying experience. Genuine physical interaction between people has become the rarity, and that’s one of the reasons the robots’ creator, Canter (James Cromwell), decides it’s time for a reset by nuking the bots in one big wave, and forcing people to restore the social behaviour that had existed for thousands of years.
The plan to give humanity a smack in the head becomes corrupted when Canter’s real son is killed by a rebel (Jack Noseworthy) associated with a fringe-terrorist group, and Det. Greer keeps pushing to uncover the truth behind Canter and anti-robot activists, led by a messianic nutbar named The Prophet (Ving Rhames).
Surrogates may well have existed in a longer cut,, but whether the shorn scenes were simply redundant material is the real X factor, because scenes run fast, dialogue never really transcends comic book banality, and the actors seem to be performing roles they believed would be given greater care in the final edit. There’s no patience for character development, and plot holes start to show up very quickly, with a ridiculously abrupt finale that’s just plain facile.
Director Jonathan Mostow, who did so well with Breakdown (1997), has little sense of visual scope and often neglects showing details of both the sets, the locations, and providing a real view of an awful futuristic world the way Alex Proyas managed to succeed in the otherwise clunky I, Robot (2004).
The effects are fairly strong in Surrogates, as is the cinematography by Oliver Wood (the Bourne films), Richard Marvin’s score, and Kevin Stitt’s tightly cut action scenes, but every now and then one senses a jump in the story. Greer’s partner Peters (Radha Mitchell) doesn’t have much to do until the finale when her robot is being controlled by Canter, and yet she remains a stick figure with little personality – making the death of the real Peters around the film’s midpoint virtually uneventful and meaningless.
The only characters who remain compelling are Greer and his wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike), since Maggie’s shuttered herself in her own bedroom and refuses to interact with Greer except through her avatar. Greer and Canter as are also emotionally linked as still-grieving fathers of dead children, except Canter uses his son’s murder to push his rage to more dangerous levels.
Writers Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato have packed a lot of nuances into the script to show how demented the lives of this lazy generation have become, but by focusing exclusively on Greer and Canter, the rest of the characters are as robotic as their avatars. That makes the film extremely frustrating, because there are plenty of intriguing ideas floating around, but no one managed to explore them beyond their decorative function.
The film’s finale is equally frustrating because while one expects Greer’s decisive action to be motivated by his own marital dissatisfaction, the final resolution of knocking out the planet’s robots is handled like a celluloid comic book: it’s a great sequence of everyday robots dropping like dead weights in city streets, but people suddenly wandering out like curious hermits comes off as awfully cartoonish.
Moreover, if a large section of the planet’s working population lie at home and perform their daily duties through their avatars, wouldn’t whole technical infrastructure splinter and self-destruct, such as now-derelict nuclear power plants overheating, planes falling from the skies into populated areas, hydro-electric plants running amuck, and whole subways trains colliding with others that are parked at stations or other out-of-control trains? Greer’s actions might reset humanity, but the damage to key levels of infrastructure would be akin to a natural disaster.
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Mostow’s film is an intriguing B-movie, but the edits seriously damaged what should’ve been a thoughtful and provocative sci-fi gem.
Prior Ferris-Brancato scripts include the unnecessary sequel Terminator: Salvation (2009), Mostow’s lackluster Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), Primeval (2007), and Catwoman (2004). One suspects the reason The Game (1997) worked so well stemmed from director David Fincher’s obsessive fixation on slow-burning tension, which mandates time for characters to reveal themselves, and grow. And maybe a third-party rewrite.
Click HERE to read an interview with composer Richard Marvin.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan