Review: Surrogates

Directed by: Jonathan Mostow
Written by: John Brancato, Michael Ferris
Starring: Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, Boris Kodjoe, Jack Noseworthy, James Cromwell, Ving Rhames
Released: 2009 / Genre: Science-fiction/Thriller / Country: USA / IMDB
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Surrogates is a cautionary tale about our increasing reliance on technology. The concept is intriguing as Bruce Willis attempts to piece together a murder plot involving robots and their human users. The film muses on the idea of a society living life where human dysfunction and limitation are discarded in the face of robotic better selves. These cosmetically perfect versions of human beings are controlled by their less than perfect owners who tap into their robot’s artificial intelligence allowing them to live full lives without leaving their home.

The machines – known as surrogates – have transformed the face of western society (ie. those that can afford the technology) and made cities awash with beautiful people where imperfection is a thing of the past. The drawback in Mostow’s film is that the perfection can only extend to the means of the filmmaking process, meaning you feel like you’re watching Hollywood congratulating itself on being far more attractive than Joe Public. It isn’t helped by Bruce Willis providing one of his worst performances in years.

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Willis plays a detective on the trail of a killer who has developed or is in possession of a device that destroys the robot surrogate and kills the human host simultaneously. You will be forgiven wondering why Bruce Willis looks like a waxwork version of himself, bathed in high contrast to hide any skin blemishes on his face that might indicate age and retaining a facial expression as immovable as his limited range. This is because you are looking at his surrogate, or more precisely, his perfected version of himself. If the Hitler Youth is this guy’s idea of a perfect self, I’m not too sure surrogates are a future we want to experience.

The film, adapted from a graphic novel (aren’t they all these days), does have a great concept but tells its story in much the same way as better graphic-novels-to-film-adaptations Sin City and Watchmen, in that it features the protagonist undertaking an investigation in the midst of institutional and political conspiracy. There’s elements of film noir and the detective on a trail much bigger than that which it first appears. But director Jonathan Mostow is handcuffed to a script that rarely utilises its original idea of a future where imperfection is nonexistent, concerning itself more with a hackneyed conspiracy plot.

Admittedly, there is an attempt to make sense of this perfect society as Willis questions his wife’s changing values after her surrogate allows her to lead a life she thought she couldn’t have. His wife, played by Rosamund Pike, isn’t happy when Willis begins to live his own life without his surrogate robot. Cue Mostow abandoning the high contrast and Willis the bleached blond hair, to reveal a weathered face, grey hair and an unkempt beard. It’s little wonder Pike fails to share her husband’s new found penchant for ruggedness. But it’s shallow and rather discourteous. When Pike eventually reveals her true self – grey hair and a huge scar across her face evident for all to see – Mostow is telling us this is her real human form. But you know she’s still gorgeous, and more often than not her true self in Hollywood is closer to that of her surrogate robot than the scarred and aging woman revealed in the film. Indeed, her imperfect self is more heavily doctored by make-up artists than her faultlessly attractive robot. There’s a sense throughout that these human perfections are the idealised version of ourselves through Hollywood’s rose-tinted spectacles, and that every time the surrogate’s user is revealed we see only see a pretty Hollywood actor with their beautifully pristine looks rendered hazy amidst a few grey hairs and some aging skin lines. Well, with the exception of Bruce Willis – no wonder he looks uncomfortable throughout.

Surrogates could have been so much more thanks to its great premise but is hampered by an unconvincing performance from Bruce Willis and its own shallowness towards the subject matter.

Review by Daniel StephensSee all reviews

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    Agreed Dan. Surrogates was a film with plenty of potential that it just couldn’t (or wouldn’t) live up to!

    What the hell was Ving Rhames even doing in this flick?… He brought nothing to the table and added almost nil value to the production!

    Bruce was okay though, even if he was let down by that terrible script.

  2. Avatar
    impassionedcinema Reply

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  3. Avatar
    Castor Reply

    Yea, pretty bland and superficial movie. I agree there was a lot of potential for it to be interesting and thought-provoking but instead, that just made for frustrating yawns.

  4. Avatar
    Custard Reply

    Nice words Dan!!

    I totally agree with you. Surrogates left me feeling very empty indeed. I saw it on the SKY planner the other day and was tempted to watch again, but, now I remember it for what it is.

    Thanks Matey


  5. Avatar
    Andrew Reply

    I found this movie to be painful and reprehensible, and most of all irresponsible for failing to explore its conceit and connect the central concept of interacting with people through the use of the titular automatons to contemporary society. Mostow just wanted to make a big, loud, brainless action movie, which I suppose is fine except that the movie doesn’t even deliver in those areas– it’s just limp and arid, devoid of anything substantive to keep its ideas afloat and lacking the energy to truly entertain and wow us.

  6. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Andrew: – Terrific overview that echoes my sentiments too although I think I gave it an extra star for the quality of the central concept. That is despite it completely failing to investigate it properly.

  7. Avatar
    Fitz Reply

    Unfortunately, the film seemed more impressed with its action scenes than the theme it was trying to present. The short run-time didn’t help either.

  8. Avatar
    rtm Reply

    This looks laughable apart from Willis’ blond wig! I much prefer him bald any day.

    Btw, I had no idea this was from a graphic novel. The concept is pretty intriguing but sounds like the execution is just bad.

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