In Surrogates, which arrives today on DVD, director Jonathan Mostow addresses modern anxieties about technology, posing unnerving and highly relevant (if not oft-repeated) questions about what defines us as human beings, how to cope with a good invention gone bad and how far we might go in the quest for physical perfection (sound familiar yet?).
At first, this near-future doesn’t sound so bad. An opening montage informs us that the advent of the surrogates unleashed a population of aesthetically ideal (and physically impermeable) robots to live life for us mortals, solving pesky global issues like racism, disease and accidental death virtually overnight. So while the army of Barbies and Kens faces real-world downers like commuting in the rain, stubbing toes and fighting wars, humans remain safely ensconced behind closed doors, lounging in bathrobes while operating their robotic counterparts with their minds.
Of course, there’s always a downside to technology’s advances. Bruce Willis stars as Tom Greer, an FBI agent who serves as the conscience of the film as he confronts his growing uneasiness with the so-called “surries.” He grapples with a diminishing emotional connection with his wife, and is mourning the death of his young son (exposition alert!), the loss of whom has made his wife a true shut-in while her Stepford-style surrogate heads off to work and hits up the party scene.
When a sudden murder of a surry also kills its human counterpart — who just happens to be the son of the surrogates’ inventor — the machines’ safety insurance is suddenly questioned, and Greer is off and running to get to the bottom of the mystery. Soon, he’s caught in a tangle with a high-powered corporation, an anti-surrogate crusader and the grieving inventor, all while he wrestles with his philosophical and political awakening. Stripped of his surrogate for a little while (thanks to a nasty run-in), Greer heads out into the world with human tenacity and fragility.
The DVD release for Surrogates doesn’t include a wide range of extras, offering simply an option to see the film with Mostow’s voice-over commentary, along with a music video of the theme song. (The video features the real band, not their surries.) While the pickings are slim, Mostow does have a lot to say about the thinking and planning behind many of the scenes, from a shoot-out that was filmed at a vacant mental health facility, to how Willis’ surry (and more haggard, human face) was created.
The director is thoughtful about his work, but his enthusiasm can’t make up for a mostly underwhelming story. The film is based on the graphic novel The Surrogates, and, when viewed with this in mind, makes more sense as a linear affair that lacks the kind of nuance and excitement of other high-tech thrillers. It seems Mostow took the plot as far as he could and used production techniques that unite film noir and a 1960s-style, futuristic look to give Surrogates an elegant, eerie feel. Yet, while Surrogates champions humanity over technology, even super super-human cinematic feats aren’t enough to make the film more fun, thought-provoking or — ironically enough — emotionally resonant.