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In Association with
Surrogates (2009)
Director: Jonathan Mostow

review by Mike Philbin

The basic premise of this film is, "As a protective measure, the whole of society sits at home controlling robotic avatars called 'surrogates' around what used to be their daily life." Well, not all of them, of course - there has to be a resistance to change, or there's no real storyline.

Let's talk motivation, not narrative or stylistic motivation of the film, but this reviewer's motivation for wanting to watch Surrogates in the first place. Intrigued by the Pandoran adventure of James Cameron's Avatar, it was the aspect of avatar-driving as a lifestyle that attracted me to this film. And they came out round about the same time, too. In fact, this was always intended as a comparison piece where the treatment of the avatar-driving lifestyle was examined across both films, and it still might go there. Let's see.

The first real difference with the Avatar film is that the 'avatars' in Surrogates are made of metal. They are robots, but the artificial intelligence, the 'ghost in the machine', is an actual human driver. Yeah, we can think of these machines the way we think of cars. Man, they even seem to come with fleshy airbags as standard, and they have all the curves in all the right places.

While Avatar was all about exotic gene-splicing of human with Na'vi, Surrogates is all about nuts-and-bolts mechanical products aggressively brought to market by global conglomerate VSI (Virtual Self Industries). Mirroring the mindless global up-take of life's non-essentials such as 'carbon footprint', 'cell-phone currency', and 'super-fast broadband', these 'surris' (as they're called) are a modern convenience-become-necessity to simply get you from A to B in your daily working grind. But the control mechanism is basically the same as a car; key in, slip it out of neutral and 'drive'. Check those mirrors when pulling out into traffic.

There were some clever references to contemporary robotic insurgence into our lives in the "15-years-ago..." opening sequence, featuring such gems as the XOS 2 combat power-suit by Raytheon Sarcos Research Labs and Hiroshi Ishiguro's grotesque Germinoid doppleganger. In fact, there was a lovely tie-in with James Cameron's Terminator films - as, in Surrogates, we see combat surris being controlled by military driver kids, probably recruited from Xbox Live account rankings. I always had it in my head, while watching the original Terminator, that these hunter-killers were just kids screwing around on a Skynet server playing 'Total Global Dominator' or something, actually really killing the majority of humanity with their mindless trigger pulling in the name of 'corporate entertainment'. Which brings us, sardonically, to -

One thing seriously missing from Avatar was humour. Avatar's dialogue was clucky and overbearing like a mother hen, it needed the humour pass. Surrogates, on the other hand, was a skittish yellow chick full of the joys of its medium without too much of the cynical sneer associated with Hollywood action films of a similar genotype.

Example: "My surri's in for an upgrade, and they gave me this crappy loaner," says one of the cheaply-plastic-faced characters whose lack of signal fidelity isn't up to the manually dexterous task of fitting a key into a door. Nice.

And I loved the robotic avatars (or surris, as they're known) recharging in corporate hallways and street corners all over the cities like mobile phones, awaiting their next 'day at the office'. Now, that made me laugh, every time I saw it...

Richard Marvin's original soundtrack was suitably thrusting and dynamic, wistful when it needed to be, if a little derivative of other such sci-fi soundtracks you might have heard in your time, dear viewer. It really worked, is what I'm saying.

Yeah, all the stay-at-home surri-drivers are real skanky looking, in their jammies. Why do you need to look presentable if you never leave the apartment, right? I mean, you're gonna answer the door in your avatar or surri, so why bother to do your make up, change out of your sweats or have a wash even. Imagine the chronic tooth loss in such a society!

This was a point that was made in Cameron's Avatar but here it's the whole world, lounging around with their beardy spotty faces plugged into their 'docking chairs'. It's not too hard to imagine the utter reek of such apartments, the cheesy fog of day-long inertia.

One of the really cool things about the film is, and it happens right now on the internet, people choose 'identities' that reflect their inner spirit, their id, their often-ugly self-image. You have the white guy driving a black surri, you have the old guy driving a child surri, and you have an ugly woman driving the sexual Ferrari of surris. In the name of, "People can't face who they are and what their lives mean."

While this film is marketed as a throwaway action adventure yarn, it's structured more like a meditation piece on the role of corporate machinery in our everyday lives, the oh-so-intimate intrusion of private snooping into what should be secret to us, personal, inviolable, as individuals on a god-given free planet.

So, rather than it just being 'that film with Bruce Willis in a plastic wig and a bucket-load of foundation', Surrogates is a rather deeper-than-it-seems exploration of regret and how humanity copes with its artificial constructs, its financial wars and its legal definitions of freedom. The quandary of 'what happens when we are stripped of those essentials that form our contemporary journey' is a fitting enigma. What happens when we have to re-integrate with the human matrix, and really 'touch people again'? Surrogates is easily as much fun as I, Robot and Minority Report combined.

DVD extras: I Will Not Bow music video by Breaking Benjamin, plus a feature audio commentary by director Jonathan Mostow.


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