Movie Review – Surrogates (2009)



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.

3 stars

15 responses to “Movie Review – Surrogates (2009)

  1. I’d agree with you on this Helen, to a certain extent. Although the film did have these ideas, it didn’t seem to want to spend much time exploring them. Furthermore, the end of the film devolved into a cliche sequence that was to be expected.

    The original graphic novel on which this is based is much more tonally resonant and character driven, whereas the film only spends a few minutes here and there establishing its themes.

    To tell the truth, having read the graphic novel, I was slightly dissapointed in the film, and thought it could be MUCH better. This had the potential to be the next Blade Runner, but the director was mor interested in delivering a thrill ride than a thinking man’s piece of cinema.

  2. The film is superficial in the sense that when it puts ideas on the table, for the most it simply leaves them there for the audience to pick up, or not as it chooses. On the flip side, it was rather refreshing to be left some room for thinking instead of having an obvious point relentlessly hammered home. The recent and in its premise very similar Gamer comes to mind.

    Since I haven’t read the graphic novel I can’t comment on the film’s merits as an adaptation (although it’s been my experience that the more attached I am to the source, the less I like the movie), but I can say that I liked the movie taken by itself and found the development of Willis’ hero to be satisfying. While the film is not always character-focused, it is character-driven; the intersection of Carver’s mental breakdown and Greer’s emotional reawakening is the story. And of course, I’m not one to complain when the focus shifts for the sake of a great chase sequence.

  3. That was a good chase sequence!

  4. I can sympathize with your disappointment in the treatment of a favorite novel. I was traumatized early in my movie-going life when Disney took a novel that I really liked and ‘adapted’ it beyond recognition. I won’t refuse to see a movie made from a book I admire but I am cautious. Generally I try some brainwashing exercises before I go, telling myself it won’t be and can’t be the same, should be taken on its own terms, judge what I see not the movie I would make etc.

  5. And which Disney book/film would that be?

    On a side note, look at Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” and it’s film adaptation “Blade Runner”. Both are polar opposits but fantastic classics in their own ways. I am almost done reading Upton Sinclair’s “Oil!” and I love P.T. Anderson’s adaptation of it, popularly known as “There Will Be Blood”. Again, polar opposits but fantastic in their own separate mediums.

    It’s rare but it happens.

  6. I definitely agree with the proposition that a movie can be both a good movie and a bad adaptation. Take the 1940s MGM Pride and Prejudice. Fairly lousy as an adaptation, but while not a classic of the screen it is an enjoyable film… as long as you can look past the ways it goes wrong as an adaptation!

  7. Not likely one you would know, a novel of romantic suspense by Mary Stewart titled Moonspinners. It’s a fun story with archaeology, a strong heroine, and an exotic (at least for a midwestern teen in the ’60’s) seting in modern Greece. The studio reworked it as a vehicle for Hayley Mills and kept the title, the setting, and not much else.

    I’ve heard it said that it’s easier to make a good movie from an indifferent book than from a good one. Not always true, of course, but a complex novel can be very difficult to translate into a two hour retelling. Short stories, such as Dick’s, can be better sources because they’re built around one strong idea.

  8. Huh. Well, just to touch on Pride and Prejudice the best version is the four-hour, 1995 version with Collin Firth.

  9. Willis’ character development was satisfying, and he did have an arc that he specifically went through. But I felt a few of the scenes in which he did have those arcs weren’t dwelled on enough. For example, the Dread scene had a montage to suggest Greer’s emotional reawakening.

  10. Either way though, I would still give it 3 stars. It’s much, much better than Gamer. Even from an intellectual standpoint.

  11. Just watched it. I like it a lot more than I expected to because it does have great ideas, mainly due to character development (yes, there is some of that in this film).
    One interesting aspect is that I could have sworn that if the virus at the end was to spread, every surrogate and its host would die and when the virus went through I was happy to see that Greer had actually chosen to “kill” everyone. Then they announced that only the surrogates were affected. Did I miss something?

  12. Re the ending: Carver did design/intend the virus to kill host + surrogate. Greer saves humanity by using the “master switch” to disconnect the entire host population from their surrogates, but then hesitates over whether to also turn off the surrogates so the virus can’t be uploaded at all. Ultimately of course he lets the virus do its work on the surrogates, completing his conversion to the Dread’s philosophy that humans should live in their own bodies.

  13. I like the idea more that Greer would decide to kill everyone instead of allowing the virus to do so. No master switch baloney, just good ol’ fashion stop everything and start from scratch.

  14. You sound like Carver – so bloodthirsty! ;)

  15. I even knew ti was him from the beginning of the film. I like the film noir aspect of the first 30-40 minutes, the A.I. (Spielberg film) type surrogates but the third act falls big time. And the CG was slightly embarrassing; it was done better in Terminator 3.
    Don’t get me wrong, I still like this film.


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