Surrogates Circumvents “Dorian Gray” Twist With Technological Addiction

FBI Surrogates Peters (Radha Mitchell) and Greer (Bruce Willis)

FBI Surrogates Peters (Radha Mitchell) and Greer (Bruce Willis)

Reviewed By Henry B. Rosenbush

Surrogates is an entertaining speculative science fiction thriller top lining Bruce Willis in his first starring role since Live Free or Die Hard two years ago and provides a clever new twist on computer addiction. With plenty of thought-provoking subtext to consider afterwards, about our nature of reality, this effective futuristic opus ponders how society would function if most everyone stayed home while plugged into “stim chairs” as robotic versions of themselves interacted in the “real world.”

Director Jonathan (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) Mostow’s film evokes a number of other films (Blade Runner, The Matrix Trilogy, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I, Robot, Strange Days and eXisTenZ, to name a few).

Whereas today’s Internet allows for feigned intimacy via cyber sexual liaisons between computer-addicted personas who may or may not be who they represent, the plot, developed by Mostow’s “T3” scribes, John Brancato and Michael Ferris (from the graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele), postulates surrogacy as a lifestyle where operators can do and be anything (a fat, bald man represented in surrogacy as a sexy blond woman; a black man whose real world equivalent is white and even the fact that the replicated surrogates are all young, beautiful and handsome while their home-bound operators are presented either ordinary or unattractive.

While the film doesn’t address such matters as reproduction (although there is a brief television advertisement for children surrogates), affordability (these cybernetic doubles are mass produced in computerized factories similar to the automotive industry) or whether world leaders are plugged in like the general populace. We do learn during an opening credit montage that the story takes place 14 years from now and that the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 in favor of surrogacy although the case leading to the decision is not revealed.

The film opens with a college student Canter (James Francis Ginty) murdered outside a club while embraced with a cute blond (later revealed as the corpulent bald man rather than a real world woman) by a “meatbag,” re: human. FBI Agent Thomas Greer (Willis) and his partner Jennifer Peters (Radha Mitchell) are assigned to investigate and make two shocking discoveries: Canter is son of surrogate creator Dr. Lionel Canter (James Cromwell), now a recluse having been fired from Virtual Self Industries which he founded to provide mobility for the handicapped and that the weapon used to kill the robots also killed the human operators who were plugged in.

The investigation leads to a police car and motorcycle race through Chicago (where most of the film was lensed) with the chase culminating with a thrilling helicopter crash and the partially dismembered Greer chasing the killer Strickland (Jack Noseworthy), who is in possession of an electronic weapon, into a “reservation” where the humans against surrogacy reside. Greer is able to unplug before his surrogate is killed by a shotgun firing woman who calls his robot “an abomination.” The reservation’s resident leader is nicknamed, The Prophet (Ving Rhames, who was memorably cast opposite Willis in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”) who spouts plenty of anti-surrogate rhetoric while concealing a secret of his own saved for the climax.

What distinguishes this film from others in the robotic science fiction subgenre is for once they are neither the villains nor rampaging killers (“I, Robot”) but merely the vessels for humans to act out fantasies and send to work in regular jobs while the operators stay home and control. The premise, which has been over-simplified in trailers, involves a plot to deactivate surrogacy and observant audiences will have no difficulty in recognizing the lead conspirator or the motivation. There are plenty of action scenes to placate the popcorn crowd and enough serious subtext for later conversations over a late night Cappuccino.

There is a scene where a group of surrogates are “jacking,” a form of electronic high which seems to have a sexual component involved in the process and one disturbing throwaway scene in the FBI facility with Peters and computer whiz Bobby (Devin Ratray – now there’s a name worth remembering!) where we see an attempted rape in a hotel room nullified by shutting down the two perpetrators’ surrogates just as they are about the assault a woman. Via computer, Bobby gets an immediate warrant allowing the techie to circumvent the operator’s control and disable the would-be rapists. This is de rigueur to a graphic rape-murder scene in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days” (1995) where a device allows the wearer to experiences recorded directly from another’s cerebral cortex. David Cronenberg’s underrated “eXistenZ” (1999) is closer in the realm of artificial intelligence themes with video games that mimics virtual reality to such a degree the players are never certain whether they are in the game or the real world.

Deactivated Maggie (Rosamund Pike)

Deactivated Maggie (Rosamund Pike)

Willis has to contend with the real world after his surrogate is destroyed and in a scene eerily reminiscent of Don Siegel’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) where every surrogate passing Greer glares as if he doesn’t belong. At home, Greer’s wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike) is deeply addicted to surrogacy and we almost casually learn the couple lost their only son in an automobile accident.

At 88 minutes the film moves briskly and sans a surfeit of needless subplots neatly climaxes in a manner that should please most audiences. Willis is very good at the everyman role and likeable as the gruff human who wants his wife to unplug. As Maggie, Pike, who is portrayed as both gorgeous and totally self-absorbed in her robotic persona, echoes sadness beneath the veneer she so preciously protects while Mitchell is quite good at being bad in the late stages. The reliable Cromwell is seen briefly and brings a much needed humanistic side to the equation while Boris Kodjoe’s FBI Supervisor Andrew Stone is quite good. Rhames chews the ham as The Prophet and Ratray makes the most of his small, but crucial, role as Bobby.

Technically the film is splendid with visual effects aces and the makeup quite convincing as the surrogate versions of the characters all have clear, smooth complexions, move in a deliberately mechanical – but not stiff – manner and look like models from the pages of GQ or Elle. Willis is particularly fun to watch; when first seen wearing a blond toupee, while his operator is bald and with a goatee, and looking about thirty years younger.

As a cautionary tale about addictions, which can manifest in many forms, “Surrogates” succeeds in presenting a plausible, albeit perverse, variation on Oscar Wilde’s infamous “Dorian Gray.” Instead of the painting aging while Dorian remains youthful and decadent the operators grow old, obese and unattractive whereas their alter egos are unfettered by the constraints of growing old.

A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release of a Touchstone Pictures presentation of a Mandeville Films/Top Shelf production. Produced by David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman and Max Handelman; executive producers, David Nicksay and Elizabeth Banks. Directed by Jonathan Mostow from a screenplay by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, based on the graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele. Camera (Deluxe color, Deluxe prints domestic, Technicolor prints international, Panavision widescreen), Oliver Wood; editor, Kevin Stitt; music, Richard Marvin; production designer, Jeff Mann; supervising art director, Dan Webster; art director, Tom Reta; set designers, Al Hobbs, Stephen Christensen, Lorrie Campbell, Domenic Silvestri, E. David Cosier; set decorator, Fainche MacCarthy; costume designer, April Ferry; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Tom Williams; supervising sound editor/sound designer, Jon Johnson; re-recording mixers, David E. Fluhr, Myron Nettinga; visual effects supervisor, Mark Stetson; visual effects, Sandbox FX, MPC, Synthespian Studios, Brickyard Filmworks; makeup effects, Gregory Nicotero, Howard Berger; stunt coordinator, Jery Hewitt; assistant director, Nil Otero; second unit director, Simon Crane; second unit camera, Igor Meglic; casting, Jane Jenkins, Janet Hirshenson, Michelle Lewitt.

Reviewed at RAVE Motion Picture Patton Creek 15, Hoover, AL, Sept. 24, 2009. MPAA Rating: PG-13 for for intense sequences of violence, disturbing images, language, sexuality and a drug-related scene. 1:28.

Thomas Greer – Bruce Willis
Jennifer Peters – Radha Mitchell
Maggie Greer – Rosamund Pike
Andrew Stone – Boris Kodjoe
Young Canter – James Francis Ginty
Dr. Lionel Canter – James Cromwell
The Prophet – Ving Rhames
Strickland – Jack Noseworthy
Bobby – Devin Ratray

Featurette Contains Spoilers