“Look at yourselves. Unplug from your chairs, get up and look in a mirror. What you see is how God made you. We’re not meant to experience the world through a machine.”
Since the time we were kids, we were warned that you can’t tell a book by its cover. That has never been more true in our modern world of the internet. We play in chat rooms where almost no one is who they pretend to be. We lie about our age, looks, and even our gender, and rationalize it as harmless escapism or merely exaggeration. Everyone does it, or so we believe, so it’s actually expected. Police officers often pose as innocent young children to lure pedophiles out of their dark lairs and into a new dark lair, this one with bars and armed guards. So, I guess it’s not that large of a leap into the world of Surrogates. Now you can order an entire working body to look like anything you want. You sit in a comfortable pod and live through this artificial skin. You can’t feel pain. You can’t catch a disease. You can’t die … or, again, so you would very much like to believe. If we can’t change the book, we can now at least change the cover.
The movie begins with a short history of the surrogates. With advances in robotics and neural mapping, the technology reaches the point where most of the world’s population can afford their own surrogate. It’s like Pinocchio in reverse. Pinocchio was the puppet who wanted very much to be a real boy. Here the real humans want very much to be attractive and virtually indestructible puppets. They want to be Terminators. The advance does come with its advantages. Murder has become almost completely extinct since no one really interacts anymore. Cops have it relatively easy in this near future life. Except someone has developed a weapon that can not only destroy the surrogate, but travel through the optic sensors and literally fry the brain of the human operator. It’s the first murder investigation in some time. Enter Detective Tom Geer (Willis) and his partner Detective Peters (Mitchell). They’re charged with locating the weapon and getting to the bottom of the crime before more people get killed.
With the dawn of the surrogates, humanity has become factionalized. There are those who believe the technology is an abomination. Many of these people, called Dreads, have chosen to live in reservations where machines are not allowed by treaty with the government. Geer breaks the treaty when he chases a suspect in the killings to one of these reservations while wearing his own surrogate. The machine is destroyed, and Geer is in trouble for violating the treaty. Now he must work without the security and protection of a surrogate as he faces the world for the first time in his own skin. He encounters prejudice from the surrogate population who consider his “nakedness” obscene. Still, he has to get to the bottom of the mystery before a plan to kill all surrogate operators is put into place by the militant fringe of the Dreads, led by a man called The Prophet (Rhames).
The concept is based on a graphic novel created by Robert Venditti and Bret Weldele. It’s a darker, less detailed world in the graphic novel. Here the filmmakers made a couple of wise choices. The first was to set it in a highly recognizable very near future. Except for the presence of the surrogates, this is pretty much the same world we know today. The cars and buildings are pretty much the same as they are in our present world. Thus, the surrogates are operating on familiar territory. The next good decision came in creating a very tight no-frills story. There’s no time taken here to admire the special effects or to ponder the landscape. We don’t get fed a lot of jargon. The film runs a tight 80 some minutes and is over before you know it. The f/x are quite convincing without so much of that “look Ma, no hands” mentality that often pervades these science fiction adventures. The f/x blend in seamlessly with this realistic world without feeling the need to call attention to the fact that they’re there. Of course, there are some obvious show-off moments, but they never go into George Lucas territory. Finally, the casting choices were pretty much spot on. Bruce Willis plays this kind of guy in his sleep. Ving Rhames doesn’t need to stretch any acting muscles as The Prophet. He just is. The supporting cast works just as well with Rosamund Pike as Greer’s wife. Radha Mitchell gets to play both good guy and bad one here when her surrogate gets jacked.
It’s a little unsettling at first to see Bruce Willis as he plays his surrogate. It’s like what we’d get if Willis was a Ken doll — make that a Bruce doll. I felt a lot better when the real Willis was forced to get out of his pod and do some leg work, human leg work, that is. That’s the guy we love to see in action.
This is one of those films that strikes close enough to home to incite some real philosophical questions. The ending is a big “what would you do” moment that I won’t spoil for you here. But, it will be one of those questions that some of you will gather around pondering. Insert cell phones for surrogates, and I know what I would do. The film manages to pose some serious questions without ever getting too preachy. The entertainment factor is never sacrificed for a message, but it’s there nonetheless. It’s an enjoyable, fast-moving film that is absolutely worth the look.
Surrogates is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 codec at an average 26 mbps. This image looks very good. Understand that much of the film has a decidedly styled look. The Willis surrogate will put you off at first. The detail level is high, and you do get to take advantage of some excellent production design here. Black levels are good with no artifact or edge enhancement worries to deal with. Colors are a little off, by design. There is an unnatural gloss over the film that is completely intentional. The print is in perfect condition.
The DTS-HD Master audio offers a very aggressive surround mix here. The action scenes are very much alive with enough activity around you that you do get a nice immersive experience here. The film isn’t particularly loud. The action stuff doesn’t really overload anything in this presentation. Dialog is crisp and clear. The score gets lost a bit, but there are some rather nice moments, surprisingly during quiet areas of the film. Your subs don’t kick in as well as I might have liked, but you gotta love the nice use of ambient sound and subtle touches exhibited here.
There is an Audio Commentary with director Jonathan Mostow. This is one of those tracks that offer a lot of explanation to what you are seeing. It’s often technical and a love fest for everyone who was involved in the film. Of most important note are the moments when he talks about the source material and how it influenced the film.
Deleted Scenes: (6:03) There are four scenes, some with unfinished f/x. You get the handy play all option. Nothing really stands out, however.
A More Perfect You – The Sciences Of Surrogates: (14:34) HD Cast and crew offer mostly synopsis and character profile here. There is talk with a few scientists about how close we really are to this world being a reality. You’ll see some remarkable real world advances.
Breaking The Frame – A Graphic Novel Comes To Life: (6:33) HD Check out a lot of frames from the source material. The novel’s creators talk about where the ideas came from. There’s the usual comparison between the two versions.
Music Video (3:49) SD “I Will Not Bow” from the film’s end credits.
Make no mistake. Mostow and the original writers have a lot to say here. There is a political, or at least social, message to be found in the film. What I like, however, is that you’re given the freedom to draw your own conclusions. Like Star Trek before it, Surrogates proves that you can have a social message without beating your audience over the head with it. There’s room for a sequel here, to be sure. There’s more to this message. “Still no official word on when, or if, surrogate services can be restored. It appears, at least for now… that we are on our own.”