Blu-ray Review: Surrogates

Blu-ray Edition
Directed by Jonathan Mostow
Starring Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, James Cromwell, Ving Rhames, Rosamund Pike
Disney Pictures Home Entertainment
Release date: January 26, 2010

Stick a movie in front of me that features Bruce Willis as a member of Law Enforcement and so help me I’ll watch it. From Die Hard to, um, Live Free Or Die Hard — via The Last Boy Scout and Sin City, among many others — Willis has defined the straight-talking no-nonsense no-shaving vest-wearing law-ignoring cop. Surrogates is the latest Willis movie to hit DVD/Blu-ray — a sci-fi action thriller based on the graphic novel of the same name — and this time he’s a robocop.

In the not-too-distant future most of the world’s population rarely venture outside their own homes. Instead they spend their lives as operators, connected to their stem chairs seeing life through robot surrogates. Thanks to a Supreme Court ruling more than 10 years ago, over 98% of the population use surrogates in daily life; they go to work, they do the shopping. Thanks to this statistic, crime in the U.S. is down 99% and all other bad things like racism and sexism have seen a huge decline. Surrogates were initially developed to help disabled people, used only in a medical context. Then costs came down and eventually these robots became affordable to regular people and private use of surrogates became popular.

Surrogates are you, but much better in every way: flawless skin, perfect hair, they cannot be hurt, and should they be destroyed, you can just buy a new one. This is a world populated by only beautiful people. This is life”¦ only better.

Not everyone agrees with this idea of perfection, though. The Human Coalition, fronted by The Prophet (Ving Rhames) has set up its own settlements across America where only humans are allowed — no surrogates. The Dreads, as its members are known, are against the use of surrogates and believe they are saving humanity.

FBI agents Tom Greer (Willis) and Jennifer Peters (Radha Mitchell) are called in when people start dying when connected to their surrogates — “˜brains liquefied in their heads’. What was once seen as perfectly safe — being an operator — has suddenly become dangerous.

Amazingly everyone’s surrogate looks nothing like their operator, except Bruce Willis’. Most other people have a surrogate that looks like their younger self with a few modifications (there are some drastic exceptions like the nerdy looking white scientist whose surrogate is a tall, lean black guy. Or the attractive woman at the VSI headquarters who “˜could be some big fat dude sitting in a stem chair with his dick hanging out’). This becomes confusing when two people, often physically very different, are playing the same character. Greer’s surrogate however looks like Greer does now but clean-shaven and with a ridiculous wig.

At 85 minutes long this would have been better longer with more time given to explaining the surrogates rather than dealing with all the exposition in a credits montage sequence. It feels rushed thanks to its relatively measly runtime and because of this brevity many questions which should have been raised were not: would you want to live through a surrogate? Would you want to experience life through the eyes of a robot? Is life better this way? Clearly with 98% of the population using surrogates the answer is a resounding “˜hell yes’ but apart from Greer’s wife who chooses to live this way because she can’t deal with the pain of real life, we are never given a full reason as to why people choose to live like this. Is it simply because almost everybody is far too lazy to go to work? Is everyone suddenly too depressed to cope with real life and this is the next best alternative? The number of surrogates’ operators reaches into the billions — 98% of the world’s population. Why then does the action only take place in one U.S. city? Not reaching any further than the Eastern seaboard makes this epic premise feel suffocated and claustrophobic. The surrogates are being used for war — soldiers are being trained to use them in combat — and it’s a shame this wasn’t looked into further than a brief scene of surrogates on a training battlefield.

Act 2 allows Willis to slip into the familiar guise of the grizzled cop down on his luck. A character that has become a kind of Bruce Willis surrogate. Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think? (first and last Alanis Morissette lyric, I promise). When Willis slips into John McClane mode (albeit all too light on the wisecracks) it feels like there is some semblance of familiarity and it is Willis who keeps the show running. He may be playing a John McClane-lite role but he plays the tired cop act better than most; screw procedure, forget the law, I’m doing what’s right.

At first Radha Mitchell’s role does little to enhance the film other than to be the pretty blonde who chips in every now and then with some information that Greer could have worked out himself. Not exactly Scully to Greer’s Mulder. She does enjoy a lot of screen time but adds precious little to the scene. This is not Mitchell’s fault; she is a very good actress and when she has scenes of her own she handles them very well including — without wanting to give too much away — the trickier scenes in the third act. No, this is down to a poor screenplay and short runtime which does not allow for any secondary characters to have a convincing story arc.

The surrogates’ mysterious inventor, Cantor, played by the always excellent James Cromwell, should have been given more screen time and a more fleshed out character. Same too for Ving Rhames’ The Prophet, the enigmatic leader of the opposition. Two interesting characters that should have been explored more and would have added a great deal to the story.

The creative team of director Jonathan Mostow and screenwriters Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato collectively have a selection of disappointing movies, some of which were adapted from other material: Jon Bon Jovi fest U-571, Razzie-hogging Catwoman, explodathon Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and two-fingers-up-to-James Cameron, Terminator Salvation. Surrogates can sit comfortably among these examples. Mostow does however make the technologically-futuristic world of Surrogates look stunning and some of the special effects work looks incredible — especially when the surrogates are opened up — and fits into the live-action seamlessly.

Despite the dazzling premise and the stunning look, especially on the Blu-ray edition, Surrogates sadly falls somewhere in the forgettable middle pile of Bruce Willis movies bustling for position alongside the likes of Bandits and Tears Of The Sun, looking up at superior sci-fi thrillers like 12 Monkeys. No one could fail to be impressed by the amount of action on display but ultimately it left me cold. To me it felt like a heavily edited version of a much longer and more interesting movie. And like a world where surrogates live for humans it left me wondering what could have been.

Bonus Features

On the DVD extras front there is almost nothing to report: “˜I Will Not Bow’ by Breaking Benjamin music video and a feature-length audio commentary by director Jonathan Mostow, neither of which was particularly interesting.

The Blu-ray edition does have a few exclusives that are more interesting:

– Deleted Scenes
Four scenes that never made it into the film, which probably should have been included. Not all of the scenes have been completely rendered, but still worth watching.

– A More Perfect You: The Science of Surrogates [15:08]
This short documentary featurette seeks to show that our modern-day technology is not that far off from the technology of Surrogates. This gives examples of ‘surrogate’-like robots existing today and possibilities of a cybernetic future. This also contains behind-the-scenes footage from the film, along with information on how they chose the look for Willis’s movie surrogate.

– Breaking The Frame: A Graphic Novel Comes To Life [6:39]
Definitely the best featurette included, and like the film, could have benefited from being a big longer. This feature shows a motion-comic version of the Surrogates graphic novel by Robert Venditti for which the movie is based, along with interviews with Venditti, star Bruce Willis, and some of the filmmakers.

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