Saturday, September 26, 2009

Surrogates: Who Wouldn't Want to Pilot A Robot?

surrogates movie poster

What would you do if you could buy a robot like you buy iPods and cell phones? What if you could pilot it, immerse yourself in it, and use it like we use online personalities? Would it just be used by those who can't move on their own, the physically disabled? Would it be used by the police force to keep their real selves from being injured? Personally, I would use it so I can jump around and not get hurt. It's probably irresponsible, but it would be super fun.

These are some of the basic issues that Surrogates takes on. Directed by Jonathan Mostow, the director of U-571 and Terminator 3, based on the 2005 comic book series published by Top Shelf written by Robert Venditti with art by Brett Weldele. It stars Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black, Silent Hill), Ving Rhames, Rosamund Pike (Pride & Prejudice, The Libertine), James Cromwell, and Jack Noseworthy. The film is set vaguely in the "present day," though the comic series is set 50 years in the future from when it was written. The use of "surrogates," remote operated humanoid robots has become commonplace, though it was developed with the intent to help the disabled. The creator of the surrogates, Dr. Lionel Canter (Cromwell) is wheelchair-bound, and uses a variety of surrogates to get around, after being fired from the robotics company that manufactures the robots. There's also this underswell of humans that find the idea of surrogates disgusting, and immoral, etc. They live on reservations that they create for themselves, sequestering themselves away from the others, preventing any surrogates from entering. Their autonomy is accepted by the government, and there's a tentative treaty in place. This human activist group is lead by "The Prophet," played by Ving Rhames, dressed kind of like George Clinton from the P-Funk All-Stars. Think this is complicated? This is just the backstory.

It's a crazy, convoluted, intense little ride, but it's entertaining. There are excellent sci-fi moments, and like the best sci-fi stories, it makes a very convincing and simultaneous subtle and glaring social and political commentaries.

Bruce Willis,surrogates

Agent Greer (Willis) is a fine FBI agent, working with another fine officer, Agent Peters (Mitchell). They're called to a scene where two units are offline, and they can't reach the users. Turns out, a weapon exists that can fry out a surrogate, and the backlash kills the user. One of the victims was a sexy blonde unit, piloted by a pretty fat (and now pretty dead) guy. The other was piloted by a college student, the son of Dr. Canter, the inventor of Surrogates. Greer and Peters both pilot their "surries" on the job, to keep themselves safe from harm, and also to use the advanced and near-superhuman abilities of these machines. Greer comes very close to the culprit, and almost dies by the mysterious weapon. Now finding himself without his buffer system, he needs to get out into the real world to put all the pieces together, track down the killer, and uncover a conspiracy that can only be pulled off in a world where you can be anyone you want at virtually any time.

bruce willis,surrogates

I'd like to read the original comic book, so I can see how things are different. Just from reading about the plot on Wikipedia (yes, I know), it seems that there are superficial differences, and the overall theme is the same. For some reason, it looks like they made the plot even more complicated for the movie, which is pretty crazy complicated (though I admit I called most of it at the last minute, not too long before the reveal built up. I liked the idea in general, and the little touches they threw in that they didn't have time for. There is one scene with a poster for football, with the silhouette of a player holding a severed surrogate head. It makes you think: What would the use of surrogates really do for the professional sports world? For the acting and modeling world? They do explore the idea of surrogates used as soldiers, with thousands of banks of live soldiers (in uniform) chilling out and hooked up to the system.

It also has a Big Brother/A Scanner Darkly feel, in that the government is able to tap into the feeds of users, and even remote access them to shut them down in times of danger. There are rows of video screens, displaying surrogate feeds, and thousands of people watching and monitoring to report illegal activity. It's (interestingly) supervised by a human guy, without a surrogate. He's basically the Comic Book Guy-type character, but pretty interesting in that he likens himself to God, and literally has access to the surrogate network (which is apparently interconnected like the internet, so in some ways it's technically possible to access all surrogates on Earth).

The production value on the film is pretty intense. Initially, the whole outside world has something of a plastic, artificial feel to it. All the characters are supposed to be surrogates, so they have very clean, polished skin, but there's really no issues with realism. Apparently, in this world, they've bypassed the "uncanny valley" effect, the idea that robots created that look extremely realistic somehow look less comforting, and start to look creepy. Bruce Willis especially looks interesting, smooth-faced, plastic, full head of Conan O'Brien-like hair. He looks more like John McClane when he's unplugged, and of course, as our hero, actively uses the surrogate technology, but also feels vaguely ill at ease with it, and especially in his personal life, feeling that he hasn't spent any time with his own wife without the use of surrogates in years.

It's very much a classic sci-fi film in terms of tone, and theme. It's a little bit I, Robot, it's a little bit 1984, and it's a little bit of contemporary social networking and online personality immersion. There's a little bit of Philip K. Dick in here, too, so I think that was a pretty heavy influence on both the creators of the comic book series, and the guys that wrote the screenplay. It's engaging, thought-provoking, sometimes violent, wildly fantastic, and utterly plausible.

I recommend this film to anyone that likes good old-fashioned (albeit modern updated and actiony) sci-fi. I give it four armless Bruce Willises getting hit by trucks out of five, or four rastafarian Ving Rhames human-promoting revolutionary political activists out of five.

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