Friday, August 6, 2010

Film Friday: Surrogates (2009)

Surrogates could have been a fascinating film about the consequences of losing ourselves to the virtual world. But it wasn’t. The writers never could look beyond their knee-jerk liberal worldview to create a believable future and they were terrified to explore any of the issues that arose. At the same time, the director couldn't decide if he wanted to make a science fiction film or a summer blockbuster. He ended up with neither: an action movie without any thrills and an intellectual movie without any brains.

** spoiler alert **

Surrogates takes place in the near-future when mankind has invented human-like drones that people literally use as substitutes for themselves. As the operator lies in a sensor chair, the drone lives their lives for them, obeying all of their commands. Theoretically, this premise makes the film ripe for a fascinating set of philosophical questions and social commentary. For example, you’ve got questions of privacy, questions of anonymity and knowing who or what you’re really dealing with, questions of people losing touch with the real world, questions of the loss of our physical health as people vegetate in front of computers, and questions of what defines us.

That’s a lot of fertile ground for a pretty compelling and interesting take on the modern world. Indeed, this is the kind of premise that could easily showcase both the best and the worst of our increasing reliance on the internet, and could result in a film that is simultaneously both inspiring and deeply disturbing. But it wasn’t. And there are two main reasons the film never came anywhere near its potential: (1) The knee-jerk liberal worldview adopted by the writers (it actually came from a comic book) and (2) the director’s desire to appeal to a mass audience.

Bad Writers
Right out of the gates, the audience is hit with a liberal worldview that matches nothing that thousands of years of human existence have shown us about human nature. Consider this: what would happen if people suddenly learned they would no longer bear any of the negative consequences of their actions? In other words, they could no longer get hurt no matter what they did, they could look however they wanted no matter how they maintained themselves, and they could move through the world anonymously. If you said, “crime and discrimination would disappear,” then you’re an idiot. . . or you’re one of the writers. No rational person would believe this. It makes no sense. Put humans in a consequence free environment and they take advantage of it, they don’t suddenly lose their worst instincts.

Yet, the film starts with this nonsensical premise -- which is based on the liberal fallacy that crime is supposedly the result of disadvantages and is not a conscious personal decision. And in so doing, the writers immediately create a huge disconnect with the audience, which makes it impossible for the audience to relate to the people in the movie.

Moreover, this premise falls apart immediately as the writers introduce all of the standard liberal boogeymen. You have the blood-thirsty military, the corrupt cops, the dirty businessmen, the religious fanatics who are actually hypocrites and really work for the corrupt businessman. Yep, the only thing missing was Dick Cheney. And each of those standard issue boogeymen was made all the worse because they found themselves in a consequence free environment. . . the exact opposite of the premise upon which the movie world is based. Thus, the writers undercut their very own liberal knee-jerk world when their other liberal knee jerked. Jerks.

Further, the writers were clearly too afraid to touch upon the issues that would make this film so much more interesting. Willis suffers from anxiety when he’s out in the street in person rather than in his surrogate. But it passes right after it’s mentioned. People who have done nothing but lie around for ten years immobile, can suddenly get up and walk around without showing any signs of the atrophy that comes with being bedridden. It’s mentioned several times that you never really know who is operating the surrogate (as you can look like anyone), but we aren’t shown any of the kinds of depravity or betrayals this would lead to . . . and which occur every day on the internet where predators and perverts lurk anonymously. And for all the talk in Hollywood about racism, they never touch upon this subject even though the obvious question would be: would minorities continue to be minorities in public? They also completely skip over the question of kids being raised by parents acting through robots. And they utterly fail to grasp the social consequences of any of this. For example, if people are partying through their robots and never really meet in the flesh, who is getting married and having kids? Wouldn’t there be a population plunge? What about the irresistible human desire to pull pranks, to hack, or to exploit a system? Nada. What about the herd instinct? Wouldn’t everyone try to look like the latest supermodels? And how exactly do people in the poorest parts of the world afford these surrogates? And so on. . . all skipped.

In short, they hint at some interesting issues, but they whitewash them all, and they ignore a great many more -- especially those that would require them to think of how the world would actually change. In other words, we’re supposed to accept the premise but not really think about what the premise would mean. This makes the film bland and pointless. And it probably won’t surprise you to learn that the writers are the same team that wrote Terminator Salvation, another pointless, lifeless, generic yawner meant to keep your brain from ever coming on.
Bad Director
Beyond the writing problems, lies the problem of the director: Jonathan Mostow. Mostow either didn’t quite know if he wanted to make a contemplative science fiction film or a summer action film, or he was too afraid to lose the summer kids because he never veered from the summer formula -- and he doesn't even do that with any creativity.

Bruce Willis plays the same character he always plays. . . a middle-aged, slightly out of place cop (FBI) with an unhappy family life. The story takes place when Bruce and his partner (Radha Mitchell) discover that someone has a weapon that lets them fry surrogates and kill the user in the process. This of course turns into a global conspiracy involving the standard bad guys: the U.S. military, corrupt cops, evil corporations, and a psychotic inventor who is the real mastermind behind whatever the evil plot actually is. Bet you never saw that coming! The plot is generic. The characters are generic -- Ving Rhames, Rosamund Pike, and James Cromwell are all wasted in this. The plot twists are generic. The pacing is generic. And the ending is uninteresting -- in fact, the movie beats you over the head with “the right answer” so much that when Willis finally is called upon to makes his decision, there’s just no suspense. Nothing interesting, original or spectacular happens in this film. It's entire potential is squandered and it ends up neither as a good action film nor an intelligent science fiction film.

It’s kind of sad that a movie with this much potential achieved so little. In this regard, it reminds me a lot of I Am Legend, which had so much potential, but chose to ignore it all for fear of losing the summer kids.

Oh well.

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26 comments:

ScottDS said...

Yeah, I think I mentioned this one in an open thread recently. As I wrote on Facebook, I thought the film was quite lame, that Bruce Willis deserves better, and that one wonders what Ridley Scott or Steven Spielberg might've done with it.

Jonathan Mostow has directed one very good movie (Breakdown), one okay movie (U-571), and one movie that I thought was much better than it had a right to be (T3). But he's a journeyman director with no discernible style. There were parts of this film where I got the impression that he was trying too hard. It's tough to put a finger on it but it's as if he was looking at guys like Sam Raimi and Guillermo del Toro making comic book movies and thought to himself, "If them, why not me?"

I agree about the other actors - all wasted, especially Rosamund Pike who was probably one of the better things in Die Another Day. As for the politics, they really didn't hit me. Though I take issue with the "corrupt cop" trope. I think the problem with that one is that it's been done to death but how many movies beloved by conservatives feature a good cop taking out the bad cop?

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, You say the politics didn't strike you, but did the world they created make any sense to you? In other words, could you really see that world developing from this invention?

Also, you didn't notice the standard cliche bad guys? Like the gratuitous scene with the blood thirsty "peace keeping operation"?

I agree largely about Mostow, though I thought "U-571" was pretty poor, it was a weak copy of "Das Boot," and I thought "T3" was horribly dull and lifeless. As you say, I got the feeling that this was a director with no real style other than point and shoot trying to fake having a style by copying from other movies. . . but never quite achieving anything.

I particularly thought Rhames was wasted because I usually like everything he does, and here he had a potentially interesting role, but it fizzled out into nothing.

And my biggest issue with the film was that it came near so many issues but carefully avoided each one.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. I've become a fan of Pike, though I can't really place her in too many movies other than "Die Another Day" and "Doom". . . a bit of a stinkburger.

ScottDS said...

Some political things hit me more than others. :-) And I'm always skeptical of some of this stuff. Is it a harmless line of dialogue or is it the writer wearing his politics on his sleeve? A thin line to walk, indeed.

Perhaps one day, as an exercise, we could all compile a list of "non-cliche" bad guys as a counterpoint. I've said it before - even when I'm spinning my own movie scenario in my head, it's hard to avoid "corporate exec, corrupt cop, etc."

As for the world, I admit that I didn't think it was completely unrealistic BUT perhaps my muted reaction to the film was due to not being able to connect with the world as it was presented. So there is something there...

Oh, and re: "a world without consequences," it reminds me of something I once read about Groundhog Day (a movie I love). Bill Murray uses the repeating day to better himself but someone once said that, if Stanley Kubrick had directed the film, there no doubt would've been a rape scene or two. :-) Is that a more or less valid version of the film than the one we got?

P.S. I've only seen Pike in those two films as well. Die Another Day lost me at the CGI surfing scene and Doom... well, someone at the time remarked, "You know a movie called Doom is bad when it ends with two HUMANS battling it out, as opposed to human and ALIENS." :-D

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I can leave aside the occasional line of political dialog -- as you know. But that's not the problem here. Let me clarify: I'm not saying that this movie was preachy. That's not my complaint, nor it is what I mean.

My complaint is that the whole movie was premised on this worldview (a liberal one) that simply doesn't fit anything we know about human beings. That made the whole thing seem fake because none of the reactions fit with what we know about how humans react.

It also led to all kinds of contradictions (which caused it to seem even less real) when they had to abandon their worldview to make the story work. Whether its liberal or not is not the issue, it's the un-human world they've created.

Regarding "Groundhog Day," the thing to keep in mind is that "Groundhog Day" was a fantasy comedy/love story. It's not the kind of movie where you explore the dark side of the human condition. "Surrogates" was a movie that was all about the dark side of humanity, only it never got past hints of gray (with the exception of the cliche villains).

As for compiling a list of non-cliche bad guys, I've actually been thinking about just that. There are some classic bad guys out there who are in no way cliches and it might make for an interesting post to identify them or to describe the possibilities more generally. What do you think would be better?

I wanted to like "Doom," I really did. It looked like a fun, mindless shoot-em-up cross between Aliens and a videogame, and I like several of the actors. But it just stunk. Bummer.

ScottDS said...

Your second paragraph is probably why I reacted to the film the way I did. As I said, you definitely hit on something. :-) Honestly, the film didn't stay with me long enough for my brain to process it! But instinctively, my brain might've recognized something was amiss.

Your complaint reminds me of all the criticism Gene Roddenberry got in the early days of Star Trek: TNG: "Humans are perfect, racism doesn't exist, sexism doesn't exist, etc." Even the show's own writers had trouble with that concept.

I think it would be fun to describe the "bad guy" possibilities as they exist now. They can't all be terrorists but I'm sure there are good ideas out there.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Interestingly, in my response to you, I had a bit comparing this to some of the "Star Trek TNG" contradictions, but I took it out because it got too long.

Take for example, the idea that "we have evolved to a point where we no longer judge others." Well, that doesn't sound credible because it's not consistent with the human condition, nor does it really make sense, i.e. so we couldn't judge murderous cannibals as bad huh?

And then, the first alien they run into with views they don't like, they judge as being a bad culture. So now they've doubled down on the loss of credibility because not only was the original premise not believable, but this shows that it was hypocritical at best -- or they really don't understand the universe they created. Either way, the result is not a good one.

Same thing with "Surrogates."

I think you're right about the bad guy concept. I'll put something together for next Friday. . . same bat time. . . same bat channel! :-)

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew: I generally enjoy Bruce Willis movies. But after reading the review, I think I'll pass on the pay-per-view on DirecTV tonight. I'll pay to see a movie that might tick me off politically, but I'm not going to pay for one that insults my intelligence then bores me at the same time. I'll wait for it to come on regular premium channels. Movies that ignore innate human instincts just don't do it for me. Utopians simply can't comprehend that human beings are rather evil creatures when cut free from the restraints of civilized society. It sounds like this movie fits that mold.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Yeah, I wouldn't pay for this one. I'm like you in that regard, I can take political films -- in fact, a lot of them are very good despite the politics. But I have a hard time with films where the basic "rules" by which the characters live make no sense.

Moreover, the other problem that arises out of all of this is that it makes the film just so completely bland. And that I really can't stand in a film. If you're going to take the time to make a movie, at least use the opportunity to do something interesting.

JG said...

I like what you say about how the movie doesn't fit into what we know about human beings. For comparison - I think it's in season 2 of 24, there's a (relatively small) terrorist attack in LA...and they have to deploy National Guard troops to patrol suburbs in Georgia to prevent the violent redneck population from beating their minority neighbors to death. Even in the immediate days after 9/11 - this never happened! And yet it's a scenario repeated over and over again, both in TV and in movies. As you say, it is included because it assumes a predisposition on the part of the viewer, that you expect to see that sort of behavior even though you never actually have.

I guess it's been too long since I've seen Surrogates, although I did find it incredibly boring, I don't remember picking up on all the thematic elements you missed (except for the corrupt businessman thing. that pretty much hits you over the head). And correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't they include at least one character whose surrogate was a hot girl but who was in reality an obese middle-aged man? I think he was one of the murder victims, but I can't remember. Anyway, they only really touched on that idea of using surrogates, or "avatars" as they are known in our world, that don't accurately represent your actual self.

AndrewPrice said...

JG, I know exactly what you mean about Hollywood including things as a fact about human nature that we've never really seen. Things like that hurt a movie (or tv show) because it immediately strikes people that "this wouldn't happen." And once you start down that path, everything that stems from that seems wrong to the viewer. And as the story builds more and more on that premise, it becomes less credible.

Not to mention, that in some cases (like the one you mention), it's simply insulting -- though that's not a problem in Surrogates.

In terms of the hot girl, you're thinking about two different moments in the film. In the first, it turns out that the operator of the hot surrogate is a well-beyond-morbidly obese woman. In the second instance, another sexy surrogate comes on to Willis, who says: "for all I know, you're some big fat dude with his ____ hanging out."

But in both instances, they dropped the issue immediately without ever exploring it, commenting on it, or even extrapolating it to the human condition. To me, that's where this movie really failed: it ran into issues like this, but then ran away as fast as it could back to the cops and robbers story without ever doing any sort of commentary/ development on the issues that arose.

It's as if someone told them: "more than a second or two of exploration will lose you your audience, so you can mention it, but don't discuss it."

To make an interesting science fiction story, you really need to explore these issues when you find them.

Ed said...

I turned it off half way through because it completely bored me. I see that I missed nothing. Nice review!

JG said...

Ah, okay. :) Like I said, it had been a while.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ed, Though I don't really think of these as "reviews" so much as topics of conversation. I would rather get at what was right or wrong about a film, or the whys and hows, than just say whether I liked it or not.

AndrewPrice said...

JG, It would be hard to blame you for forgetting anything about this film. It literally is not very memorable. . . which is the ultimate test of a film really.

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew,

I liked it, but I didn't get what you got from it.

I felt that it is more about liberals and conservatives. Liberals being the ones who are represented by the robot users. Conservatives represented by the small band of people unwilling to submit to an inhuman practice despite all the benefits proffered by the use of surrogates.

The ultimate liberal being the inventor decides that humanity shouldn't live this way. Decides to kill all the robot users. The conservative decides not to kill the users but to destroy the life-sucking system.

And about Willis who after living the surrogate life in a short period readjusts to regular life, who but a conservative could do that?

In short, the liberal decides humanity isn't worth it. The conservative decides humanity should live like men, not like wimps.

This is what I got out of it.

MegaTroll said...

I think you make a really good point. I didn't see the movie as political (probably would have made it better), but I did think "people don't act this way." And they every time they got near anything kind of interesting, they dropped it like a hot potato and ran right back to the next chase scene. Wouldn't it be neat to see a Commentarama re-write?

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I didn't get any political meaning at all from the film. I think they used a wrong-headed liberal view of humanity, but they probably didn't even realize they did it. Then they inserted standard cliche liberal bad guys because that's what you do to make a film these days, and beyond that they completely eschewed any political statements or meanings. In fact, I think they went out of their way not to inject any sort of thoughts at all in this film for fear of losing the summer audience by asking them to turn their brains on.

As for the people opposed to the surrogates, they're obviously meant to be a generic religious cult (as the modern left views all religions), but they're irrelevant to the film when you get down to it -- they're just another stop on the chase scene.

As for his decision at the end, I think they make it pretty clear that he's basically making a personal decision based on the failing relationship with his wife -- which is a very liberal mindset, by the way, to decide "this is what I want so the whole world is going to get it."

AndrewPrice said...

Mega, It might have made it better. But what would have made it better is if they actually thought about how real people would have reacted to such an invention and how that would have affected society. That's where the interesting part of this film would have been -- except they never covered it.

Ed said...

Yeah, I was going to say that your reviews aren't really like normal reviews. I like them a lot better, even when I haven't seen the whole movie. It makes me feel like I'm getting wiser about films.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, Yep, I'm not really reviewing so much as offering an analysis and hoping for a discussion. So feel free to talk about whatever comes to mind.

AndrewPrice said...

JG, I happened upon the movie again the other night as I was flipping channels. The scene with the second woman is actually one of the lawyers who says "do you have any idea who I am."

MegaTroll said...

Hey, when is the Commentarama re-write coming?

AndrewPrice said...

Not any time soon Mega, though it would be interesting. Why don't you give it a try and let us know how it goes?

CrispyRice said...

I watched this, but it was so boring I don’t remember anything about it. Sorry!

AndrewPrice said...

No need to apologize. . . it wasn't anything special. It could have been, but it wasn't.

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