Sunday, May 22, 2022

Surrogates 2009 Movie Review with Spoilers - One Weird Movie!

From the far reaches of the Milky Way Galaxy, It's Retro Nerd Girl with a film review for you.

Today I'll be reviewing the movie Surrogates released in 2009.

Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, and Ving Rhames

Directed by:
Jonathan Mostow

Sci-fi, Action, Drama

Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) Rating:

$80,000,000 (estimated)

Current IMDb Rating When Reviewed:

The Synopsis is:
Set in a futuristic world humans interact in the real world through robots called surrogates.  When two destroyed surrogates lead to a double homicide, FBI agent Tom Greer uncovers a deadly coverup.

The source material for this film is The Surrogates, a five-issue comic book limited series written by Robert Venditti and drawn by Brett Weldele from 2005 to 2006. 

Robert read Indra Sinha's book The Cybergypsies, about characters who were so addicted to their internet personas that they lost their spouses and jobs.

In the future the Central Georgia Metropolis has a series of crimes by a techno-terrorist, Steeplejack who wants to disconnect humanity from their android avatars. 

What a cool concept. 
Disney thought it was cool too and acquired the rights in 2007 with Touchstone Pictures. Husband and wife team Max Handelman and Elizabeth Banks spearheaded the project with their company Brownstone Productions and this was their debut film as producers.

Michael Ferris and John Brancato adapted the comic and Jonathan Mostow was hired to direct the film. 

To promote the film many of the cast and the director talked about their main inspiration for being a part of the film.  They seem to be very concerned about the way we are moving towards the world of this movie and mainly had something against people spending so much time on their cell phones.  They are very concerned that humans are losing their connection to each other because of their attachment to their phones and computers.  That mind set still exists today, but here is a little history on why the motivation for this movie was a product of 2009.

In order to understand this, we must review a little history.  Although the first cell phone was invented in 1973, cell phones were not widely used until the very late 1990’s and became mainstream for most people in the year 2000. 
2003 more elaborate phones like the Blackberry were huge, being sold as a personal computer in your pocket.  We had the arrival of Facebook in 2004, YouTube in 2005 and Twitter in 2006.  The smart phone as we know it eventually appeared two years prior to this movie in 2007, where you could engage with all of these social communities on your phone.  That changed the way humans interacted with their cell phones.

The film takes place in 2017, only 8 years from the date of the release of this film, so it was looking a bit into the near future since so much happened in technology within the last 9 years in the real world. 

The novel took place in 2054, which I think is really more accurate of a point in time that we would be ready as a society to adopt robots to replace us in the real world. 

They were wrong, but much of the technology for something like this is available today.  We are just not there yet to want to choose this as an option.  We have other digital modes we are more interested in using avatars to entertain us like games, content creation like I am using and social media.

Another topic that the film inspires is the use of virtual reality where you can do things outside your body through a computer avatar.  I think this is an exciting part of our future.  In fact, we have several virtual worlds already in existence that humans have been engaged in for a while now.

Many virtual worlds are available on flat screen PCs and phones. Epic Games are Unity to big players in the game. Minecraft  has 600 million users. Roblox has 30 million players a day with 15% of children under 12 using the platform.  Virtual Worlds by Tencent has 3.5 billion users.   A few days ago, I saw a guy doing his daily errands while playing Magic the Gathering on his phone.

POV games are being turned into live action movies, like Hardcore Henry 2016.  Although it wasn’t wildly successful, I can see a day, where we have a series of movies where you can see the story through the point of view of one of the main characters, with completely different events that lead to the same connected story.  That’s exciting.

More aggressive virtual experiences have been featured in Tron 1982, StarTrek Next Generation had the Holodeck, There was a Twilight Zone episode in 1985 called Dreams for Sale 1985, Ready Player One 2019, The Matrix 1999, eXistenz 1999, Dark City 1998, The Thirteenth Floor 1999, and World on a Wire 1973, are a few examples of this.  Each one raised curious questions about virtual reality.

I have a lot of problems with the technical probability presented in the film, but there is something very interesting there that I just LOVE to be honest and I think it’s worthy of conversation.  

The film also has two other story plots of a murder mystery and a family drama.

At 1h 29m  The pacing is pretty fast, with a heaping mountain of exposition in the beginning.  This film earns a high score for pacing.

So let me set up the story for you which the film does in a timeline montage at the very beginning of the film.  

It details 14 years of innovation since 2003 that lead to the film’s present day which clearly establishes in my mind that this is an alternative universe!  Yes! And I believe, 2003 is when the timeline splits from our universe, to this alternative one.

2003 there were first brain studies detailing the use of thoughts to move robotics using sensors, just like we did in the real world.  The big difference in the timeline was the existence of the inventor of the surrogates Dr. Lionel Canter in the movie’s universe.  It was his hope that “physically disabled people '' (like himself) would “be able to operate fully synthetic bodies''. Not missing body parts, but fully synthetic bodies?  That’s the catch.

All surrogates are produced by Canter’s company VSI, Virtual Self Industries. These surrogates for humans are basically puppets controlled remotely by a user strapped into a stem chair, where they operate the robot.

Technology is being developed in the real world to create robots to be more human-like, for practical use and entertainment.  We also have androids made in the likeness of real people, some of which were actually featured in the beginning of the film.  

In 2006 the technology was harnessed for military and industrious use.  Eventually surrogates became affordable to the general public.

The key sales pitch was that this gave users the ability to live without risk or danger, the perfect body without genetics, working out or plastic surgery.  Who wants to sign up for that?  I’m afraid I would raise my hand.  Heck, I already use an avatar.

I do like myself, but I don’t want to change in order to look perfect on camera, so I use my avatar to represent me.

Today there is a huge emphasis on looks.  We see this in everyday life where we have influencers who tweak their photos to look flawless, not to mention the cosmetic procedures many of them make to present wrinkle free skin, smaller noses, higher cheekbones, sexier eyes, slimmer faces, slimmer bodies, and curvier bodies.  People are shaving down their perfectly natural teeth to apply bright white veneers.  

Imagine facelifts of the future that excavate the face down to the bone to build robotic implants that respond to the brain’s impulses.  Then it is covered by a perfect organically grown stem cell skin layer or even straight up silicone.  Thats’ the future of plastic surgery.  

Instead of going to the gym, implant muscles.  It’s happening already.  I can imagine humans amputating their body parts to be superhuman cyborgs.  We will be wearing the technology permanently.  

Robotic technology is also being developed for the high demand of intelligent love dolls that are perfect in every way for the owner.  These incredibly unattainable standards are part of yet another commentary in the film about the emphasis on perfect physical aesthetics. 

But back to the story, what’s even more astounding is that in this alternative universe, The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the use of surrogates in daily life.  The real Supreme Court is still trying to understand what TikTock is.

By 2010 over 98% of the world population used a surrogate.  This one is a bit hard to believe because in the real world it took another 11 years for 91.62% of the world's population to just have cell phones in 2021.  

Crime rates have dropped to record lows.  There’s a reduction in violent crime, communicable disease and discrimination.  This was about the same time that Dr. Canter was humiliatingly forced out of VSI by his partners due to a discrepancy about the direction of the company.   He went into hiding and no one has seen him in public ever since.

2014 Dr. Canter began secretly funding the anti-surrogacy movement called the Dreads led by Zaire Powell, AKA, The Prophet.  Ironically the Prophet is Dr. Canter’s surrogate preaching to the masses that humans weren’t meant to experience the world through machines.  It tickles me that he’s using the very thing he is teaching people to hate.  So clearly, Dr. Canter is the main challenge in the film, trying to undo his creation and get revenge for being humiliated by his former partners.

The Dreads have established Surrogacy free zones in major cities around the country, which still makes me wonder about that 98% surrogate population.  According to the infographic in the film, it looks like at least 35% of the population in the US alone are anti-surrogate.

After finding out that Dr. Canter has been funding the anti-surrogacy program his old partners at VSI were hoping to kill him with a secret military weapon called the OD, overload device.  This weapon overloads the surrogate with a virus while liquifying the brains of the surrogate’s user.

The partners enlisted the help of Andy Stone, director of the local FBI jurisdiction to hire a low level criminal, Miles Strikland to execute the doctor.

Miles used the weapon on one of Dr. Canter’s surrogates but  instead of killing the doctor, he killed his son, Jared Canter.  This action is what turns Dr. Canter into his final form of a psycho. 

His dreams of helping the disabled have been twisted, he was kicked out of his own company and his only son was killed.  He has good reason to be upset and vengeful.  However, he wants to take down VSI by destroying the surrogates and kill all of the users with the overload device.   He considers the surrogacy program a perverse addiction and in his mind, it has to be dealt with by killing billions of innocent people who use it.

I enjoyed the complexity of Dr. Canter's character and his overbearing God complex.  He changed the world once, he felt entitled to change it again.  He’s got great motivation and the grief over losing his son was palpable.  I felt the pain in his character when he realized that his son took the bullet for him.  It’s enough to wreck anyone.  He deserved some retribution for that, but eventually his insanity took control and blinded his morality.  

The empathy in this film is a little shaky.   A strong criticism that I heard from many reviewers of this film was that all of the surrogates seemed robotic. I think that makes sense because surrogates are robots.  Many of them look human, and are controlled by humans, but they are robots.  The film wants you to know that and goes out of its way to show that.

The film follows FBI agent Tom Greer’s perspective.  He spends the first third of the story in his surrogate where he mostly acts robotic until he has to interact with the real world in his own body.

Then we get a taste of what a struggle it is to live in the real world in a human body after being stationary in his stem chair where he has operated his surrogate for the last 7 years.  I believe that realistically the recovery would be more severe, but for the sake of time, I’ll suspend my disbelief.

Tom and his partner, Jennifer Peters are following their case which starts with the double homicide.  I told you the plot revealing Dr. Canter is the villain, but Tom goes through a string of bread crumbs to figure it all out.

He is even given the opportunity to give up on the case, having his badge and gun confiscated from Andy Stone.  However, just to give you an example of Tom’s tenacity, he goes the extra mile to get to the truth of what is going on.  At one point he even gets help from Dr. Canter in disguise as several surrogates. 

We have a detour from the plot.  Tom is simultaneously dealing with the loss of his son due to a fatal car accident.  His wife Maggie was in this accident too, leaving her with a heavy scar across her face and a dependency on medication to manage her emotions.  She is in a very delicate mental state as you can imagine. Every time she looks in the mirror, she sees the loss of her son, not to mention the disfigurement of the accident.  Having a surrogate is helping her to pretend she’s ok, but it’s not helping her to deal with the reality of what happened to her.

The relationship between Maggie and Tom is so fractured that they are not able to connect with each other with or without their surrogates.  However, Tom has a lofty thought that all of their problems will be solved once they get rid of their surrogates.  At least, interacting in person could allow them the opportunity to deal with the reality of how the accent left them and build from there.  Heck they might even discover they don’t belong together any more, but Maggie will hear nothing of it.  She wants to continue to wear the mask of the surrogate to pretend everything is fine.  This is all reasonable and I think this is worthy of its own film.  I loved all of that.

Down the darker aspects of the film is the very sad outcome for Tom’s partner Jennifer Peters.  It broke my heart because her surrogate gets hijacked by Dr. Canter who hates people so he shows her no mercy.  

The last character of mention is Bobby, the comedic administrator of the FBI computer system that monitors and controls the surrogate network.  I am not sure why this system is at the FBI and not at VSI, but that is probably why the two organizations are working together against Dr. Canter.  Bobby is not using a surrogate, which makes him special.  He is a bit of a trope but he provides a little deus ex machina techno magic for the story at the end to save everyone.

The technical aspect of the film holds up pretty good.  It’s not perfect but it impresses me matched up to a few other sci-fi films of the time.

Most of the filming took place in Massachusetts which grounded this film.

The exterior of the impressive VSI building is a digitally altered version of the Dallas Bank of America Plaza (also known as "The Green Building"). 

There isn’t a whole lot of information about the technical aspects of the film but you can see that there was great artistry to get a lot of the practical robotic details featured.   

A great deal of effort was put on hiring gorgeous actors and actresses so that with the right make up and digital skin smoothing, the surrogates could have a very flawless or plastic look.  Then in contrast, a great deal of makeup was used to exaggerate the users of the surrogates as weaker, older, physically neglected, and unhygienic.

The performances of the main cast were pretty good but it was not without its problems.  That is probably why there is so little talk about the making of the film available.  I am not sure what happened but the film underwent some restructuring.  One big thing in particular is that Bruce Willis refused to re-record several lines of dialogue and an expert voice-over actor that could make his voice sound like Bruce finished his work.

Now at face value you would assume it must have been some bad blood that caused this, but in late March 2022, Bruce announced he was retiring from acting because of his battle with aphasia which is a medical diagnosis concerning the loss of ability to understand or express speech, caused by brain damage.  This was truly sad news and completely lines up with what might have been going on in this film.  He never let up his workload, starring in a total of 144 films.

Nevertheless, Bruce was a great lead actor and even though his style of acting in this was beginning to change, he effectively grounded the film slowly building the audience's concern for Tom.   His performance and contribution is underrated in this.

Radha Mitchell was a big stand out in the film playing two characters, Jennifer Peters and Dr. Canter. I thought she was fantastic.

James Cromwell portrays Dr. Canter playing him as a grief stricken father terrorized by his shattered dreams as well as the moments of emphatic mania and righteous apathy.  This is the third time James has played a suicidal inventor.  Those other two films were Eraser 1996 and I, Robot 2009.

I was a little disappointed that Ving Rhames was underutilized in the film.  He was great as always, giving the character of The Prophet lots of gravitas.

It is important to say again that I adore this film because of the conversation it offers surrounding ethics, technology and mankind.

After building up some good hard earned empathy for the characters, the ending really snatches a lot of it away for me by having Tom decide to shut down and permanently destroy all of the surrogates.   The rhetoric of The Prophet and the mad ravings of Dr. Canter, about how terrible the surrogates are for humans, had slowly begun to convert Tom to the side of the anti-surrogate movement.  But remember, the film makes an effort to emphasize that surrogacy was used for every facet of life by 98% of the population.

The film plays this off as a wonderful moment of liberation, with minimal destruction and people leaving their homes in wonder.  However, what about  airplanes and trains in motion with humans on board, patients in the middle of surgery, cars and trucks on highways along with humans, and a whole bunch of sensitive situations that cause disaster.

I’m also imagining that Tom would be sent to jail for damaging trillions of dollars worth of other people’s property and collapsing the world economy.  I hope he enjoyed the hug he got from his wife at the end of the movie.

The part that rubs me the wrong way about that is the way he robbed users of their agency to choose their own way of life.  I completely understand the standpoint of wanting more real life experiences for oneself, and he has valid feelings about wanting to interact with his wife in person.  Making a decision to go without a surrogate was his choice and totally respectable.  Making the decision to force his wife and billions of people to live without surrogates was selfish and dogmatic.

Yes, there were people who were taking advantage of the surrogates for their own desires, but there were people who needed it for other reasons including work, the disabled and life saving caregivers.

Choice and agency is a basic human right that we have to fight for constantly because other people always seem to want you to live your life the way they feel they want you to live.  Most of the time, it is to serve their own needs.  That is my big gripe with the story.  It’s ok to have the villain do something like this, but having the protagonist do it makes the ending bittersweet for the viewer.  It definitely would have been better if he didn’t make that decision, but it was an inevitable outcome from Dr. Canter’s plan.

Dr. Canter refers to the dependency of surrogacy a form of addiction and technology just like, eating, sex, drinking, smoking, doing drugs, gambling are capable of the same thing.  Each one of us has to decide how we want to balance and manage them in our daily lives.  It takes effort and self awareness.

15 years later from the invention of the smartphone it seems like a magical time that so much happened that shaped our world today.  One could say that we are connecting with other humans even more than ever in ways we never imagined.  Especially after experiencing the pandemic lock downs in 2020, technology has been keeping us connected. 

The ironic part about that is that most of the interviews, promotion, and actual viewing of the film has been and will be done on a digital device of some sort.  Not to mention all of the digital technology that was used to make the film.  The anti-technology aspect of the film feels hypocritical and I’m not mad at the film for it.  I just think it’s amusing to be honest.

The main point isn’t lost on me though.  It’s great to have so much at our disposal to help us, but at the same time, the beauty of life in the real world might be a sacrifice if there is no management.

I was chatting with my Mom and describing the film to her and she said that this reminded her of an Issac Assamov short story, The Fun We Had about a girl and a boy in the future reading about kids from the past that played outside, which humans don’t do anymore.

The balance between the digital world and the real world is something we are still learning to manage.  

I love the food for thought the film offers although it is incredibly flawed.  It is definitely a guilty pleasure.

My Rating:

That sums up my review.  I hope you liked it.  This is Retro Nerd Girl signing off!

Take care, movie lovers!  I'm off to the next review!

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