Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... for a view clear enough to make Dr. Xavier go blind

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, and God chose them force it down throats. 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 it a plastic-raincoat wearing replicant pop star, then you can just stay home in your robe... and write a blog about it!

Ving Rhames' back-to-human coalition want to ban the surrogates, and those who are happy to be plastic zombies resent being accused of avoiding real life, especially if 'real life' involves marital coitus with Bruce's Willis' real life hulk of a robe-clad shell, i.e. . 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 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 ringer. He looks terrible and of course--of COURSE!--he, too, knows what it's like to lose a son. He and wife lost their 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 avoidance and and repressed grief as real-life spouse to a real-life Willis. In a big "acting" moment, Willis--the real version--breaks up wife's plastic people party, and repeats "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. Are we supposed to think he's brave? He's more like a spoiled kid, genuinely bewildered why a 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 guy who had to get sober and is now in AA and demanding "his" wife quit drinking too, like Hickey in ICE MAN COMETH. Here wifey has turned herself into an object, as your gender requested, but that's not enough: you want her real body to be under your literal thumb.

It's kind of ironic/interesting that the parent company of SURROGATES is Disney, imagineering masters of artificial humans (as above, from Disney World's Hall of Presidents). It'sperhaps an indication of the kind of hypocrisy at work in their evil corporate family blandinzing that CGI overwhelms every stop of their quest for Apple's Way-style 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.

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, and when their hairy bathrobe wearing middle-aged owners finally come out come out wherever they are, 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--any gender, age, criminal record--and 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. 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.


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