Surrogates is a solid actioner with some great ideas, a recycled plot and an above-average director. In short, it’s quite satisfying for what it is. Perhaps beating Avatar to the punch (and certainly dealing with its core ideas in a much more interesting fashion), it imagines a future where human beings can interact in the real-world much as they interact on line at the moment. Denying genetics or lifestyle, they are able to craft a robotic body double to their own design (skin-colour, age, sex, weight, height) to send out into the world, allowing them to live via uplink. You could live your entire life without ever leaving your bedroom. It isn’t exactly a new idea in science-fiction, but it’s certainly a big idea for an action movie to tackle. Thankfully, it manages very well.
The biggest problem with basing your movie around a great idea is that you have to execute it well. A great idea poorly executed doesn’t work. Whereas style can go a long way to masking story problems – particularly in blockbuster fare – it doesn’t necessarily work the other way around. Even the most intelligent or sharpest story must be presented with some hint of skill to allow it to engage with the audience. As such, a big budget action movie might seem a very strange setting for a discussion about human identity, but it works. perhaps it’s because the audience may be managing its expectations going in or because the style compliments the story, it feels like this movie has put in a lot more effort than your run-of-the-mill thriller.
It isn’t perfect, but the movie manages to present both the wonderful magic of the prospect – the infirm can walk, and those with fears of the world can interact with it from the comfort of their bedrooms – with the seedier underside – using a machine for everything you do obviously grants the powers that be more authority over your life. There are dozens of interesting possibilities thought of an explored through the film’s runtime – from court orders allowing the government to shut down unruly surrogates to the economy based around them – and the movie manages to do what surprisingly few science-fiction films do: it offers a reasonable grounding for its version of reality. Not in terms of actual science – that doesn’t really matter and could be magic for all we care – but in terms of a sociological reason. In short, if this could happen, the film offers a solid reason why it would happen.
It’s fascinating to think of identity in such ways. Imagine a husband and wife who haven’t interected with each other except through their doubles for years – do they even remember what they actually look like? Or imagine that your body was nigh indestructable, wouldn’t that make you a little bit arrogant and reckless? What does this mean for warfare? Could someone have more than one double? Do people have ‘work surrogates’ and ‘social surrogates’? How could you trust that anyone is who they say they are? And does that really matter?
The film offers a fairly indepth exploration of these ideas. Unfortunately, outside of that, it’s a stunningly conventional narrative. It’s a cop investigating a murder (the first homocide in years, naturally) who discover’s it’s something far greater goin on – and it’s inevitably going to be something which shakes society down to it’s core. Such storytelling is rudamentary and predictable. There are hints of intrigue here-and-there and the story hits all the necessary beats. Mostow has learnt from helming Terminator 3 and appears to know how to stage an action scene. Again, there’s nothing outrageously original here, but nothing unnecessarily clunky either. The world itself is far more fascinating than anything that really happens in it.
What helps the movie along is the cast. Bruce Willis knows the action genre like the back of his hand, and is one of the few leads who can manage to craft a character from next-to-nothing. I’ve always had a soft spot for James Cromwell, who pops up here as the father of surrogacy. Ving Rhames brings his typical no-nonsense vibe to the character of The Prophet, a weird cross between Bob Marley and Osama Bin Laden, the world’s leading anti-surrogacy activist. Rosamund Pike is solid as Willis’ estranged wife. There’s a host of talent on display here, who manage to keep the storyline moving at the right pace and help flesh out the interesting world with which we are presented.
Surrogates does work better as a concept than as a film, and it’s real flaw is that it feels the need to check all the boxes of a summer action flick. The world presented to us is fascinating, and the film has a whole host of great ideas at play. It’s a solid action movie with more brains than one traditionally expects from the genre. If those brains extended further than the setting of the movie, we’d be talking about a fantastic film here – as it stands, this is merely a very-good-to-great film. But that’s nothing to sneeze at.