Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 18, 2010)
When I first saw the trailer for 2009’s Surrogates, I immediately thought, “that smells like Dick!” Philip K. Dick, that is. The late sci-fi genius had nothing to do with the film’s story, but it definitely reflects his themes and aesthetic.
In the future, scientists invent robots that people use as their public selves. While the real folks stay at home, they operate their “surrogates” via remote linkups. This means they can do whatever they want without risk of harm; if something happens to the surrogate, they just get a replacement robot.
That trend takes a downward turn when two surrogates get fried – and their respective human users also die at the same time. FBI agents Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) and Jennifer Peters (Radha Mitchell) investigate and find themselves involved in a complicated world – such a complex picture that Greer eventually decides to emerge from his protective cocoon and send his human self into the fray.
Well, it sounded like a good idea. Unfortunately, Surrogates fails to explore its subject to anywhere close to its full potential. Indeed, the flick barely touches on the psychological and philosophical ramifications of a world populated so heavily by robots.
Surrogates wants us to view this development as a bad thing, but beyond a basic “it ain’t real, dagnabbit!” tone, the story never delves into the relevant issues. We see only a few negatives attached to the surrogates. Yeah, society seems somewhat superficial, but that’s about it. People still appear to live their lives as they otherwise would; they just don’t spend time in public in non-robotic form.
Reflexively, we react to this concept in a negative way, especially with the “perfect people” concept that smacks of Nazi Germany. However, since the film fails to present a clear reason why the robots are a bad thing, we’re left to wonder. Would the world be better if real soldiers died in combat? Is it terrible that people don’t have to worry about being killed in car crashes? Apparently - Surrogates doesn’t leave much gray area in terms of its semi-Luddite agenda.
Look, I’m not advocating for a world in which humans remain bottled up in their homes while their robot avatars live their lives. I will push for a movie that better explores the pros and cons, though. For the most part, Surrogates just shows us the positives and wants us to buy into the non-delineated negatives as some sort of humanitarian leap of faith.
Granted, since Surrogates makes so little sense in so many ways, I suppose I shouldn’t expect it to make consistent philosophical sense. From the very start, the viewer will likely encounter questions that the film doesn’t attempt to answer. The surrogates are depicted as expensive, and yet 99 percent of the world uses them – how do all those folks pay for the things?
In a similar vein, we hear that virtually no prejudice exists in this society. Why would the existence of surrogates change that? They’re still operated by humans – no racists/bigots get robots? Also, the film depicts various levels of surrogates, some more advanced than others. Wouldn’t there be bias against the more primitive models? The alleged death of prejudice makes no sense at all.
The movie tells us that surrogates have almost totally eliminated crime. Wouldn’t the opposite be true? I’d think people would be more fearless and daring since their robots can’t be hurt; this should mean an increase in criminal activities, as the human perpetrators don’t have to worry about physical concerns.
Speaking of which, how do the humans stay healthy? As depicted in the movie, they hardly ever get up and move. Shouldn’t they all weigh roughly 600 pounds and have all sorts of health issues? Perhaps there’s some technological method that keeps them fit, but the movie doesn’t tell us anything about the subject.
Over the last few paragraphs, I expect I’ve devoted more thought to these issues than anyone connected to Surrogates did. Confronted with a complex subject, Surrogates takes the easy way out and goes down the path of simple idiocy. The story barely makes a whit of sense; it sort of comes together at the end, but not in a satisfying or particularly logical way. Plot holes abound and leave us more and more confused as the movie progresses.
At least a few of the film’s action sequences entertain. I especially like a car chase in which the human Greer pursues a surrogate. The fact that he doesn’t have to worry about harming civilians gives the sequence a fun sense of reckless abandon, and the use of a super-powered robot as his prey adds zest to the piece.
Unfortunately, the scene ends too soon, and we’re back to the brain-dead stupidity that so wholly encompasses so much of Surrogates. At its heart, it’s an action flick with sci-fi overtones, and that’s fine. However, the utter lack of cleverness or intelligence found here sabotages any hope for entertainment; the movie’s just too darned dumb to involve us.