by HELEN GEIB
The future-world premise of Surrogates is economically established in a montage that plays behind the opening credits. Robotics technology initially developed to help people suffering from paralysis or neurological disorders has made it possible for everyone to spend practically every waking moment living life through an android surrogate. Nearly everyone has embraced the technology; the tiny minority that rejects surrogacy is segregated in primitive reservations.
The surrogates phenomenon has wrought enormous social changes. For plot purposes, the most significant is that murder has become practically obsolete: people stay securely shut up in their rooms, insulated from physical damage sustained by their surrogate bodies. When two people are killed when their surrogates are attacked, the murders threaten the foundations of the new world order.
One of the strengths of Surrogates, which was directed by Jonathan Mostow and is based on Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele’s graphic novel (the script is by Michael Ferris and John Brancato), is its high degree of plausibility. Recent mind-boggling advances in experimental medical research make the surrogates technology disturbingly plausible, but even more importantly the social psychology is plausible.
Some people use surrogates for fantasy role-playing or hedonistic indulgence, but most people use it to create an idealized self. As the corporate logo of the surrogates manufacturer puts it, “Life… only better.” People commission surrogates that look how they think they might have looked at 30 if they’d spent their twenties working out, eating right, and getting enough sleep, plus had great genes. It’s a provocative thought experiment that resonates with a contemporary culture experiencing a crisis of body image, witnessed by the national obsession with cosmetic surgery and weight loss, and an epidemic of addiction.
The detective hero at the epicenter of the adroitly plotted whodunit is a typical user who is shocked out of his dependency. Tom Greer, played by Bruce Willis, looks like a disheveled Bruce Willis when he’s in his “real” state. In his surrogate state, he is still recognizably Bruce Willis, but touched up to an extreme degree; he fits comfortably into a world seemingly populated by airbrushed runway models. In a triumph of makeup, aided by hairstyling and costume design, the gorgeous Rosamund Pike and Radha Mitchell– who play, respectively, Greer’s wife and his partner– look unnaturally, creepily good.
It’s not necessary to think to be entertained by Surrogates. The film weaves in questions of the connection between spirit and body and what it means to be human that have occupied philosophers and theologians through the ages, but it doesn’t wrestle with them. There’s no question which side of the debate the film comes down on, and it has its filmmaking legs planted firmly on the ground besides. It’s perfectly possible to enjoy Surrogates as a fast-paced mystery with a flashy sci-fi backdrop and some action elements (there are two marvelous extended chases that take advantage of the surrogates’ superhuman strength) featuring a relatable hero who mostly just misses spending time with his wife. But the film has ideas in its head, and I appreciated the show of respect.