Tuesday, September 29, 2009


"Cloudy with a Chance of Meat-Bags"

To sell a science fiction concept for a mass audience, you can never stray too far from the norms of established genres. Or else it won't pass the audience's "laugh test." Hit them with too many crazy concepts, like melting ice-caps or human civilization replaced with robots (as in the case of "A.I."), and the audience giggles because it's so far beyond their ken.

Give them the concept in little nano-drips and drabs and couch it in, say, a detective movie, or a western (as in "
Outland" or "Serenity") and there's enough comfort with the familiar to cushion the "out-there."

So, here's
"Surrogates," a comic book movie with no spandex,* set in a world where nobody is whom they seem: the populace is plugged into synth-robots, who go about their daily lives—their hosts' daily lives, mind you—and hit the pavements, their actions controlled by the drones from home. Fully 98% of the world's population is represented in this phenomenon, which was created to able the disabled, then as cannon-fodder in the country's war-games (there's a chilling shot of surrogates going into combat, controlled by Army hosts, who, when their boy-toy gets whacked, they inhabit another one--there are rooms full of computers waiting for The Big One), then as "the latest thing"—you don't have to be "present" to be present, just lay around the house all day with your thoughts and your surrogate's actions.

That 98% spread number is probably unrealistic, but the concept is pretty brilliant, evoking the present day's capacity to relegate their lives to "social networks" hiding behind screen-names and false personalities, and the human capacity to take a good idea and over-do it...to death. And the film-makers (writers Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato** and director Jonathan Mostow—not the best of directors, but actually displays some swatches of style here) do some ingenious work with a film that could have turned into merely a recycled "I, Robot" but emerged from the factory a great deal better than that mis-fire. For instance, the robots are all super-modeled with controllable hair, perfect skin, the healthiest blue in their corneas, small waists and big bouncy boobs. At home in their "stim-chambers" everybody schlumps around in their underwear, unshaven and unshowered. Their wax-works stride down the street, with arms only perfunctorily swinging and no hesitation of step, no paralyzing self-doubt. GPS is their co-pilot.

The niftiest idea is employing
a digital effect that has rarely worked in movies beforedigital de-aging, that staple of prequels that takes an aging star's face and makes it gratuitously waxy (they're very fond of it in the "X-men" movies), but it never convinces. Here, that same technique erases five o'clock shadows, pores and wrinkles, making the stars look, quite properly, like wax-museumed versions of themselves. FBI Detective Greer (Bruce Willis) even has an oddly out-of-place mop of blond hair. His partner (Radha Mitchell) is a spiffy blond and their captain (Boris Kodjoe) looks like Taye Diggs' better-looking brother(!). It's a giggly jape at the perfect appearance of corporate culture.

But in that perfect veneer a couple of dents show up.
Greer and Peters are assigned to a case of two surrogates zapped and de-activated in a back-alley. Although it looks like one for the "Recycling" boys, upon investigation they discover that the hosts, too, have been killed (the police call the human puppet-masters "meat-bags"), their brains fried down the link-line. Looks like it's homicide.

And someone's responsible.

The investigation is the weakest part of the movie, because it involves the filthy rich, the military-industrial complex, a missing scientist, and an anti-surrogate cult that likes to "ava-tar and feather" any "robo-pigs" that enter their "surrogate-free-zone"—I'll bet there's a John D. MacDonald novel out there with that exact same premise, minus the robots. Ving Rhames (one of my fave actors) plays the leader of the cult, "The Prophet." You can bet he's in it up to his dread-locks. Indeed, the mystery is almost second-nature, its genre gears openly exposed, taking a back-seat to the societal aspects of the story.

It's been getting drubbed in the reviews, but I found it competent—even a bit inspired—especially in its good sci-fi way of holding a mirror up to society. And Willis, who doesn't shy from a good sci-fi concept—"Twelve Monkeys," "The Fifth Element"—manages to engage both elements of his persona, the good dramatic actor and (in his robot guise) the smart-ass, one gear-shift from winking at the audience. Much to admire, even if one occasionally hears the machinations grinding.

"Surrogates" is a Matinee.

* Based on the 2007 comic series by Robert Venditti and
Brett Weldele

** They wrote "The Game" and "Catwoman," as well as such paranoid thrillers as "The Net," and know their robots as they wrote the last two "Terminator" movies. They fit the mold of the classic answer of directors asked their favorite movie of theirs: "The next one."

1 comment:

Walaka said...

This was a short story before it was a comic book. Same premise, except the surrogate bodies were named after celebrities (line like "The bartender, wearing a late-model Tunney, eyed me suspiciously"). The use of the robotic bodies has resulted in a resurgence of dueling (only money at stake, right, to replace the unit), and the protagonist has to show up for one after he's been disconnected from his unit. Great fun. I knda wish they had made that one.