Surrogates (Touchstone/Disney; 89 minutes; PG-13; widescreen; 2009).
After the Walt Disney company refocused its movie programming slate
toward family features, its longtime Touchstone shingle, devoted to
adult-oriented product since its inception in the mid-1980s, was
dramatically downsized. Only a handful from the Touchstone division
have since been issued, including Spike Lee’s war movie Miracle at St. Anna, last summer’s surprise Sandra Bullock success The Proposal, and last September’s sci-fi outing Surrogates, a rare underperformer at the box office from the usually reliable Bruce Willis.
We’re back to the not-so-distant future
in this one (2054 according to the graphic novels from author Robert
Venditti and artist Brett Weldele that Surrogates is based on),
at a time when bionic wizardry is so advanced that 98 percent of the
human race have their work done for them by sleek, good-looking robots
who resemble magazine models. Meanwhile, the rest of civilization can
kick back at home in their T-shirts and sweats, safe in their
brainwave-orchestrated “stim chairs” (as in stimulation, I’m guessing)
as they control their mechanical namesakes throughout their daily
paces. Since automatons are doing all the heavy lifting, the global
crime rate is virtually nonexistent—until a college kid gets killed
thanks to a scrooch gun that can zap a surrogate into oblivion while
also liquefying the skull of the human puppeteer.
And that means Boston-based FBI agent
Tom Greer (Willis) is on the case. For the movie’s first half-hour,
however, he’s not the Willis moviegoers have embraced for 20-odd years:
His Greer, actually his android, sports an absurd dirty blonde toupee
and a plastic-looking kisser instead of the actor’s well-worn smug
smirk. It’s only when the camera finally lingers on the actual Greer as
he rises from his stim chair that we see Willis as his familiar
bald-pated late-in-the-game action hero.
Sure enough, Greer has problems on the
home front, with a family tragedy that he and his cosmetologist wife
Maggie (Rosamund Pike) still can’t resolve. So the grief-stricken
Maggie seeks emotional escape by plugging in to her android, while
Greer bemoans the loss of human connection. Also in the cast: Radha
Mitchell as Greer’s partner, LA Confidential’s James Cromwell as a wacked-out inventor, and Ving Rhames, in a reunion with his Pulp Fiction pal Willis, as a dreadlocked rabble-rouser.
The problem with OK techno-thrillers like Surrogates is that we’ve seen them all many times before, from Westworld to Looker to Blade Runner to even Pixar’s WALL-E,
and unless there’s some bracing new storytelling to pull us back in,
we’re already up to speed in understanding the sociological and
psychological implications of the man-vs.-machine dilemma. Surrogates borrows mostly from The Matrix,
which director Jonathan Mostow can never completely disguise, right
down to the similar suspense sequences involving a disabled helicopter
as it dives into a human-filled Hooverville. Still, Mostow’s resume (Breakdown, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines)
demonstrates that he’s a crackerjack action director, maybe the best
all-around B-movie guy since Walter Hill, and he brings that auteurist
adrenaline to Surrogates’ set pieces.
Mostow’s fast pacing, alas, limits any
attempts at social commentary; more could have been made of how the
military employs the stim chairs for overseas conflicts, and the
satirical elements regarding such war games are missing in action.
There is a subtle stroke of amusement early in this neo-noir melodrama,
however, when it’s revealed that a nightclub hottie animatronic was
actually piloted by a slovenly Beantown male! The best gag has a robot
that looks like a crash-test dummy as she remarks, “My surrie is in for
an upgrade and they gave me this crappy loaner,” but other touches of
humor are sadly absent in the too-serious script adaptation by Terminator 3
scribes John Brancato and Michael Ferris. Yet Willis, in what is
essentially a quasi-dual-role tour de force, manages to sell this
derivative yarn with conviction, as he reminds viewers that old-school
star power will always trump computer-generated contrivances.
Touchstone-Disney Home Entertainment’s DVD release of Surrogates
is presented in a letterboxed (2.40:1 ratio) frame that showcases the
candy-colored visions created by director of photography Oliver Wood
and production designer Jeff Mann. The commentary track by Mostow is
heavy on explanations of the visual effects, like how Willis’ face was
digitally augmented in order to pull off his android role, as well as
the extensive location work in Boston. Mostow’s biggest revelation,
however, is that the rip-roaring chase sequence in the final half-hour
was added after principal photography was completed in order to punch
up the movie, and that it was all filmed on a Paramount back lot.
The other DVD extra is a four-minute
music video for the song “I Will Not Bow” by Breaking Benjamin, a band
signed to Hollywood Records, which is a Disney label. In what is
becoming a common trend in the DVD biz, the Blu-ray edition of Surrogates
(unseen by these peepers) has more extras, including some deleted
scenes, and vignettes about the movie’s graphic-novel origins and more
techie jazz about the effects work.