Friday, June 25, 2010

The Wringer of Ringerhood: SURROGATES (2009)

Dystopia rules! At least if you're the type who'd rather stay home and stare at screens than get all scuffed up in the big city of real life Boston. Bruce Willis and Rhada Mitchell are two plastic cops who care... in a world where everyone gets to be plastic and pretty, so what's the point? It's based on a graphic novel with roots clear down to every sci fi dystopia premise and routine cop plot that starts with seemingly unconnected murders and ends at the top of the world about to be destroyed (Correction, Mr. Bond, saved!) in the sci fi annals, from WATCHMEN to METROPOLIS.

The premise is artificial limbs run amok... why stop at an arm? Do the whole person and let everyone hang home in their robes and send their plastic fantastic representatives careening through the world via brainwave radio. It's a good internet analogy-ready premise, but no subtext worth exploring (for starters, what do looks matter in a world where everyone is pretty and literally plastic?) is explored. Instead, we get the routine-byzantine cop thing: Who's killing the surries (the slang for 'surrogate,') in such a way as to fry their owners by remote control? Could it be Ving Rhames as the Rastafarian leader of the back-to-skin coalition? Uh oh! Here comes a car chase!

Underneath the self-conscious dehumanizing, the film's actual subtext turns out to be a depressing exploration of the awful habit humans have of trying to impose their personal beliefs on everyone else. What they feel is missing from their lives is what the world needs to have forced down its collective throat. Not to spoil the plot, but apparently there's some people in the inner city who don't like surrogates, and want to ruin the party for everyone else. Hey man, if you don't like to rock it like a plastic-raincoat wearing replicant pop star, then you can just stay home in your robe... and write a blog about it!

So that's the clash: Ving Rhames' back-to-human coalition wants to ban the surrogates, like a mom who turns off the TV because it's a Sunny Saturday afternoon and you're wasting it on the couch. Those citizens who are happy to be plastic zombies on the other hand, like our hangdog cop's shallow wife, resent being accused of avoiding real life, especially if 'real life' involves coitus with a groggy Willis. A hulk of a robe-clad  pot-bellied shell at home (his surrogate on the other hand, wears blush like he's in a Blake Edwards movie), he browbeats, feebly, at his wife (Rosamund Pike), whose plastic Sex in the City fantasia is much more interesting (and therefore less examined) than the tired premise of ole Willis condescendingly trying to 'reach' her (you know, on a "human" level) before once again the center of a big car chase and foot chase and brawl, getting yippi-kay-yanked around like the whole film's a wringer for his ringerhood.

And of course, of COURSE!--he knows what it's like to lose a son. He and wife lost their (real!) son in a car accident, before the film commences. As Richard Corliss writes, the kid is "a victim of lazy screenwriters." (Time 9/9)

Pike does way more than seems humanly possible with a dual role that requires Stepford wife steppin' out-ish avoidanc and repressed grief as the real-life spouse to a real-life Willis. In a big "acting" moment, Willis--the real version--breaks up her plastic people party like a drunk ox, repeating "you're my wife" over and over to her fringe-topped surry, as if he's hurt--deeply hurt--that his wife doesn't want to shuck said surry and join him in looking old and grizzled just because he's taken a mind to do so, her soiree be hanged. Are we supposed to think he's brave? He's more like a spoiled kid, genuinely bewildered why a electronic toy he's kept in the closet for five years doesn't spring automatically to life when he deigns fit to dust it off. Dude, no one likes the party guy who was once fun but is now in AA and demanding "his" wife quit drinking too, like Hickey in ICE MAN COMETH. Bruce wants it all. His wifey has turned herself into an object, as his gender requested, but now that's not enough: he wants her real body, too, to be under his literal thumb.

It's kind of ironic/interesting that the parent company of SURROGATES is Disney. Those imagineering masters of artificial humans (as above, from Disney World's Hall of Presidents), whose love of CGI overwhelms every stop of their corporate mandated quest for suburban family values. Willis' nasty beard and stubble burns the digitally artifactual screen like a baby's cheek getting its brusque first kiss from an unshaven daddy, but his character ends up being no better than a common censor, sanctimonious preacher, or Tea Party conservative. He's the type who pours out "his" wife's Xanax when he decides she's taking too much and ignoring him. She's his wife, damnit. His wife, not Pfizer's!

Covert ideology aside,  the best scenes involve large groups of people on the street in young and attractive shells, doused in CGI like a Maxim group photo retouch. When their hairy bathrobe wearing middle-aged owners finally come out come out wherever they are to blink in the light of post-surrie era, you feel like you just left Beverly Hills 90210 and are back in Compton, like magic! At least the car chases come off as real and crunchy (like they did in the director's previous sci-fi film, TERMINATOR 3, featuring the very surrogate-ish Kristanna Loken, of whom I've written here) and many key internet-analogies are tapped. This is a world where anyone can sign on as anyone and go into any body--so any gender, age, criminal record--can be anyone else. Old fat dudes can go out on the town in the guise of slutty young club girls (and hey, vice versa). Skeevy as the idea may be, it surely happens all the time on the world wide you-know-where. Clearly, A stoic plea for sticking with our original ugly ass forms needed to be made, and I thank my credit card it's been delivered by the only one who can do it right: Bruce Willis, in fake blonde hair and cheek rouge.


  1. The entire premise of this movie is kind of sleazy, but it should be noted that your preacher-analogy towards Ving Rhames (how can he be wrong, dammit!?) and co. may also apply to that society at large, which thoroughly expects you to have a surrogate (I refuse to use that contrived nickname, okay?), and people who aren't joining the underground revolution of movie-ugliness, but who simply choose not to have one, are ostracized. (probably).

    Excellent post, anyway.

  2. Thanks, Simon, on behalf of my own surrogate, wherever she is!

  3. Radha Mitchell not withstanding, I haven't seen Surrogates and after your blistering post, have no desire to, Erich. The concept and its execution seemed way too cheap to warrant such a big budget, while I can't remember the last movie Bruce Willis starred in that was supposed to do anything but sell tickets in Eastern Europe.

    Keep these dynamite reviews coming.

  4. Thanks Joe, but you should see it if only because it's such a good post-modern touchstone... like the picture company that bears its name.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...