If the notion of an $80 million B-picture sounds like a contradiction in terms, Jonathan Mostow’s SURROGATES will be a real eye-opener. An adaptation of a limited run comic series, the film takes place in a Boston roughly 20 years in a future, when the vast majority of mankind interacts with the world only through a robotic avatar (hey, it was a word before Cameron, you know). Called surrogates, these physically perfect, model-beautiful representation of the human body are neurologically linked to the user from the moment of purchase.
At the time the story takes place, we’re told that 98% of the human population have and use surrogates for everything from going to work, to shopping, to late night partying at after hours clubs. The good news is that crime is virtually non-existent (criminals can, of course, use surrogates, but they can also be shut down by the police while in the process of committing the crime); however, the cost to mankind is less obvious. The vast majority of the human race now spends almost all their time lying in a near comatose state inside darkened rooms within an electronic cocoon, their heads hardwired into computers while their bodies atrophy from lack of exercise and sunshine.
One night, a surrogate is gunned down in an alley behind a club using a powerful energy weapon that kills the user as well as the machine. The user, in this case, happens to be the son of the creator of the surrogate technology, Dr. Lionel Canter (James Cromwell) who loaned the use of the robot to his college-age son for the evening. Heading up the tricky investigation is FBI agent Tom Greer (Bruce Willis), arriving at the crime scene via his own blonde-haired surrogate. Tom and his wife had retreated to life through their surrogates after the death of their young son in an auto accident (which also left his wife with a large facial scar); they rarely even lay eyes on each other’s human forms. Tom’s investigation leads him to the world of Dread Reservations – humans-only territories that practice a form of self rule – under the leadership of an anti-technology guru known only as “The Prophet” (Ving Rhames) who may be planning an uprising amongst his followers.
Even with an $80-million price tag, Surrogates appears more budget-challenged that you’d expect a Bruce Willis sci-fi/action vehicle to be: CGI isn’t unlimited (which works to the film’s advantage), and after Willis cashed his check there wasn’t enough left to put together a compelling supporting cast. Nothing against Rhames and Cromwell, but the former isn’t given anything interesting to do in a pretty silly role, and the latter has played to this type far too many times to be terribly effective (his character in I, Robot is similar enough to rate as an homage – if there were anyone who liked I, Robot enough to care).
The budgetary constraints do serve to create an endearing B-picture air about Surrogates, and director Mostow has been quite adept – in films like Breakdown and U-571 – at making a little look like a lot (and, conversely, making a lot look like a little in Terminator 3). The film’s not-too-distant future is smartly designed to look not much dissimilar from our current world, with surrogates seeming to be the only major technological advance. This enforced low tech approach works well, until it runs up against a similar economy in story and plot; the film takes great care in answering certain questions about the robots (recharging stations appear in the street with the frequency of phone booths in pre-1980 movies) while ignoring certain major issues (98% of the world uses surrogates?!?). These are relatively minor frustrations, but they do keep a good film from being any more than that.
The film’s heights come courtesy of an extraordinary turn by star Bruce Willis, whose performance ranks as one of the braver appearances by a major Hollywood star in recent memory. We’re first introduced to agent Greer in the form of his surrogate (imagine a Hudson Hawk-era Willis with a mop of slightly incongruous blonde hair), but once Greer’s robotic doppelganger is incapacitated, Greer must interact with the world as he is; a grizzled, bald and tired middle-age man. In addition to looking every day of his 55 years, Willis also spends much of the running time with massive facial contusions and abrasions – we can’t think of another actor in Willis’ strata that has ever allowed themselves to look this awful on screen, particularly at an age when most of his contemporaries are vainly attempting to hide the ravages of age.
The other actors, including his partner, Radha Mitchell, and wife, Rosamund Pike, don’t get the time to develop anywhere near as well (and appear mostly in surrogate form). At a brisk 89 minutes (including credits) Surrogates rarely loiters long enough for the inquisitive viewer to ask too many questions; it’s a well paced, entertaining show that proves that every action film needn’t carry with it a studio-busting budget.
Image wise, Touchstone’s Blu-Ray release is a decidedly mixed bag. While there was clearly some filtering used to make the surrogates of the older actors appear youthful (an effect much better used here than in the last X-Men film, in which Patrick Stewart resembled his own video game character), this appears to have been applied to the entire frame, rather than only to the faces and skin. In all but the daytime outdoor sequences, backgrounds appear variably pale and washed out. We viewed the film with a friend who instantly assumed that it was deliberate method, used to highlight the unreality of the world that the characters inhabit. This may indeed be true, but we have a hard time imagining a filmmaker like Mostow having much patience for this sort of trickery.
The uncompressed DTS audio suffers no such distortion and sounds every bit the muscular blockbuster. Extras on the standard DVD run a bit light (not surprisingly, since Disney all but abandoned the film in theaters without advance screenings for critics). We do have a decent commentary track with Mostow and a music video that we didn’t last long with. The Blu-Ray has a few exclusive features, including a non-starter EPK piece, a featurette on the graphic novel on which the film is based (no, we hadn’t heard of it either), and 6 minutes of deleted scenes.