Surrogates

In theaters.

Bruce Willis has made an art of aging—not of looking younger than his years (or trying to, clinging to youth with hairplugs and a lifted Botox face and a grotesque steroid-enhanced body), but rather of truly aging well. He looks great for a man in his fifties, but he still looks like a man in his fifties—always—and he uses that. In movies like Sin City and Live Free and Die Hard and now Surrogates, he sticks to his same old action genre, more or less, but acknowledges that he’s not the invincible, yippee-ki-yi-yay-motherfucking kid he once was. He lets himself creak a little bit when he moves, and it’s compelling and cool, and Nicolas Cage, for one, should take a lesson.

The effect is particularly noticeable in Surrogates, in which Willis plays not only Tom Greer, grizzled police detective of the near future, but also Greer’s uncanny, bewigged, smooth-faced “surrogate,” a kind of robot representative he controls remotely from the comfort and safety of his home. In Greer’s world, virtually everyone uses a surrogate to interact with the outside—an intriguing premise that raises all kinds of questions, from the practical to the philosophical. Sadly, the movie all but ignores those questions in favor of a routine whodunnit, which is why I spent most of the movie pondering Willis’s aging and other tangential thoughts. I guess I give it credit for providing the material for my flights of fancy, but its failure to develop that material itself makes it a disappointment.

The actual plot: Detective Greer and his partner (Radha Mitchell) are investigating an incident in which an attack on two surrogates somehow killed their operators. Such an attack was thought to be impossible—it would defeat the whole purpose of using surrogates to avoid the messiness and dangers of life—and when one of the victims turns out to be exceedingly well connected, the case grows more complicated. Greer questions the so-called father of surrogacy (James Cromwell) as well as the leader of the anti-surrogacy movement (Ving Rhames), and in the course of his investigation, his own surrogate is destroyed, forcing him to conduct his inquiry using his physical body.

Far more interesting than the plot: The movie asserts that the pair of surrogate-to-user deaths are the first murders in years because use of surrogates has become so widespread, with a good 98 percent of the world’s population using them full time, constantly protecting them from physical harm. I don’t buy any part of that sentence. Even if 98 percent of people could afford to use a high-tech surrogate that requires use of a recharging station every night plus an equally high-tech operating station, all to duplicate basic human functions available for free—even if that were true, why would that make murder obsolete? Presumably the basic motives for murder—greed, jealousy, hate—would still exist, so why would no one ever act on them? Simple crimes of opportunity, like muggings, might no longer result in death because no physical being would be present to be harmed, but surely more personal crimes would still occur; surrogacy wouldn’t stop that. Killers could use their surrogates to follow their enemies’ surrogates home to their vulnerable bodies—whatever. It would be possible.

Furthermore, we get a brief glimpse in Surrogate of a surrogate-on-human hate crime, complete with use of the epithet “meatbag,” in which the victim is saved only because a Big Brother–like agent remotely shuts down the abusive surrogates—a trick that is supposed to be new. So why haven’t more non-surrogate-using humans been killed like this? After all, the movie constantly suggests that immersive use of surrogates has inured operators to physical pain and frailty, and god knows the conscientious objectors are downright paranoid about their surrogate-operating brethren. Clearly a few meatbags have met untimely ends. Shouldn’t we rethink the whole “no more murder” thing?

And back to that ridiculous 98 percent stat. (I simply can’t get over that.) Even if everyone could afford a surrogate, there would have to be more resistance, from religious fundamentalists or back-to-nature types or adrenaline junkies or snobs or someone—and probably several kinds of someones with radically differing motives. There hasn’t been a single thing in human history that 98 percent of the population embraces. And how do children fit into this? We briefly see an ad for surrogates for kids, but wouldn’t they have to be at least a few years old before they could use one? What would even be the purpose of hooking up an infant to a surrogate?

I realize I’m not really addressing the movie as such, but this is what I was thinking about as the dull (and predictable) mystery dragged on. I could suspend disbelief with regard to the existence of surrogates but the movie’s pitiful development of its premise is absurd. The whole thing is rife with unanswered questions—and, worse, poorly answered questions. I hoped that Greer’s visit to a “reservation” for surrogate-resisting people might address some of the issues left hanging, but no joy there either.

There are a few details that come off well. The filmmakers obviously put some thought into how surrogates should move, and the actors do a good job with that: a slightly mechanized-looking gait, head turns on fixed axes, largely immobile features. On the few occasions in which the actors appear as the physical characters, not their surrogate counterparts, the contrast is jarring and powerful (provided that the makeup artists don’t go overboard with the uglifying, look-at-this-imperfect-body makeup, which they do on a few unfortunates). In one scene, Greer’s off-screen wife (Rosamund Pike) abruptly “unplugs” from her surrogate, leaving behind an even more vacant shell, and the sudden palpable emptiness of the artificial body is eerie.

But these are little things that can’t compensate for larger deficiencies in the movie. I wonder if the source material, a graphic novel, explores the world of surrogacy better. Maybe the content was watered down in the adaption into a screenplay, or in the transition of the screenplay onto film. Frankly, director Jonathan Mostow seems more interested in the chase scenes (which were pretty cool, in a Terminator sort of way) than in the implications of the premise, but if that were the case, why bother with a high-concept premise at all? Just make a generic action movie, and leave the sci-fi stuff to someone who’s going to give it a bit more thought.