Tuesday 22 February 2011

Surry With The Hinge on Top

2009 USA
Directed by Jonathan Mostow
Touchstone Region 2

Warning: There is a fairly big spoiler here but I think it’s necessary to spill it to make my point... sorry.

It seems to me that the Bruce Willis starrer Surrogates was a very much overlooked film on its release in 2009. I remember going to see it at the cinema and liking it a fair bit and remembering that it really didn’t stay at the local cinema very long. I don’t know how well it did at the box office but my guess is that it was unfortunately, in the case of this movie, a flop. What I do know for sure, however, is that it’s also a smart, if simplistic, little science-fiction thriller with some okay action sequences and a warm little heart beating away in the background.

The plot of Surrogates is pretty much lifted from old fifties and sixties sci-fi short stories and is very much in the vein of Philip K. Dick... who has probably written a few variations of this basic story in his time and I’m guessing that it was the strength of the basic Phildickianesque concept of this movie that kept the audience away from this one when, instead they should have been flocking to see it. The plundering of old fifties pulp sci-fi concepts seems to be a very well-worn habit with Hollywood at the moment (Avatar or Inception anyone?) but the difference between this film and some of those other less successful movies (though they were huge in box office takings) is that this film never really treats its central themes with anything other than respect and attention to detail which makes some of the other films crowding our grubby multiplexes at the moment look amateurish in comparison.

The film takes 5 or 10 minutes to give the viewer the history of the world in which this particular story plays out... a world where humans now stay at home hooked up to a machine and let robot “surrogates” or “surrys” (in another nod to Phildickian intercultural slang) do everything else for them... they are more powerful (superhuman in some senses) and younger versions of their real life alter-egos and so most people spend the majority of the day inside their surry via a hook up to a machine receiver at home, while it goes about their daily business and does their 9 to 5 job. A world in which violent crime is practically at zero.

When a surry is “fried” by a human member of one of the "cells" of anti-surrogacy groups left on the planet with a weapon that also kills the human receiver/transmitter for the surry... Bruce Willis and Rhada Mitchell (Lucy from Australian Soap Neighbours) launch an investigation which involves more brutal surry/human murders and leads right back to a plot (the films big weakness in my opinion) to overturn the popular phenomenon of surrys which have pretty much been taken up by the large majority of the planet. Along the way their are all the things you expect to go through with this kind of plot... a major character’s surry getting horrendously killed and him having to deal with trying to do his job without his robot self to make things bearable for him, a surry taken over by “one of the bad guys” and used to infiltrate the very group of FBI detectives trying to solve the crimes and the troubled wife who doesn’t want to leave her surry since the car crash which crippled her and killed her son.

Yeah, okay... so it’s all predictable stuff but, surprisingly enough, the film manages to handle it all with a certain gravitas and respectability and there are some really nice touches and attention to detail which aren’t necessarily there to move the story along in that, oh so Hollywood, cause and effect kind of script structure and which are little bursts of inventiveness in and of themselves... like Bruce Willis trying to avoid the heavy, painful accidental blows of walking through busy streets populated solely by surrogates about their owners daily business. Or the fact that in a world where violent crime is gone... their are still wars, fought with surrys. It’s all good stuff.

Also, there’s a bit of an edge to this picture which isn’t always to be found in less daring popcorn fodder. Regular, sympathetic and, yes, sometimes female characters do get killed off without any notice... these deaths are handled quickly and fairly matter-of-factly and there is no crying over spilt blood after. This is not a film where every death is woefully mourned and used as a motivating force for other characters... and this makes the deaths hit home harder for the viewer who is forced to accept them quickly and move on... and the director can be applauded for that. There are also betrayals by friends who are more involved than they let on and this, too, is handled without any shilly-shallying or dwelling on the morbid circumstances that lead the characters to their actions... like the best hard-boiled thrillers (of which this has so obviously used as its template) this one sketches characters and their betrayals quickly... and then moves on.

The final solution of this movie ups the stakes somewhat though... and I so wish it didn’t. In solving the crime and stopping the deaths of millions of innocent people, Willis’ character takes the decision to leave part of the villain’s end game in place which ensures that by the end of the movie... no surrogate in the world is left standing and humanity will have to come out of its self-made shells and start living as itself again... a moral stance that the majority of the best hard-boiled thrillers would allude to but not set in stone as the final denouement of their story. This movie takes that leap because... well I guess the studio felt it needed that kind of grandeur to help it appeal to the kids is my guess. I would personally have liked it if they’d toned it down a bit, kept it fairly small scale and left the world in general in the same sorry state it’s gotten itself into... but no such luck and that’s a shame.

Still, though, a brilliant little gem of a movie if you’re into old style soft sci-fi concepts mixed with plain, old fashioned police procedural narratives. Definitely one to check out if you're of the mood.


  1. Thanks for this. Bruce Willis is kinda sorta my guilty pleasure. He does everyman so well. Letting the air out of the puffed-up ending would have been a good idea. Have you ever made a film? Fave word ever: Phildickianesque.

  2. Yeah, he's cool... but very hard to work with is my understanding. James Garner said some bad stuff about working with him at the start of Willis' career and recently, one of my writing/directing/acting heroes Kevin Smith, said pretty much the same thing. But he's a "star" and a good actor so... I'll watch his stuff.

    Tried making the same short from one of my scripts three times in the last 20 years... cursed with bad luck. Even had one shot and edited and then the master tape fell out of the editors car somewhere! Seriously!

    Again, and as always, thanks so much for your interest and your wonderful comments.