Science fiction and fantasy


directed by Jonathan Mostow

Surrogates poster  
Some people spend hours engrossed in virtual fantasy worlds, logging on in order to live as someone else within a game. What happens when that roleplaying spills over into real life, and lasts all day?

Surrogates is about a near-future world where almost everyone owns a robot version of themselves, known as a "surrogate". They control this from a high-tech gaming chair which monitors signals from their brain, allowing them to operate the surrogate and experience life in a different way. This means people can do things they wouldn't normally dare to. They can live their lives by proxy, without risk.

A side effect is that people can look any way they want to. Many of them simply look like younger and more attractive versions of themselves, although I would have expected to see more people with elf ears and blue skin, or a few centaurs walking around. I mean, if you could look like anything at all you would, wouldn't you? I would.

Although maybe horse legs are a bit impractical for the subway.

The main character, Tom Greer (Bruce Willis), just looks like a guy with freakily smooth plastic skin and a dodgy wig. In his case the artificial version is less appealing than the flesh, and no doubt this is deliberate. Not only does it make Willis look better, it reminds us that there's something creepy about robotic people.

Greer and his partner Peters (Radha Mitchell) are cops who are called on to investigate a murder. A surrogate's destruction has somehow managed to kill its controller, something that should be impossible. The victim turns out to be the son of a rich inventor, Canter (James Cromwell), who founded the company that gave the world surrogates, although he has since left the corporation.

The murderer's trail leads Greer into the human-only reservations. These are places where people live free from robot interference, experiencing natural life in all its danger and immediacy under the leadership of a man who styles himself The Prophet (Ving Rhames). Greer's investigations uncover a weapon that could potentially wipe out millions of people.

Haunted by the accidental death of their son, Greer's wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike) has withdrawn into her surrogate life and won't leave her room as herself. So underneath this high-octane action movie there's also a poignant sub-plot about facing up to life's risks in order to fully live.

This movie's concept is thought-provoking, but there's one scene that really draws it out of the realms of science fantasy. When Greer goes to talk to the military there are soldiers fighting virtual wars with surrogates. It's reminiscent of Ender's Game, but the implication of this part is much closer to home: here is a real-world use for this technology, and it's not unlike the remote warfare that already takes place using unmanned drones.

Not everything is quite as believable. The film suggests surrogates will lead to a falling crime rate, presumably because so many real people spend their time cloistered away in their homes. But the internet teaches us that if you give people anonymity, or even the illusion of it, the last thing you can expect is good behaviour. Random insults, petty theft, flame wars and spam would be more like it, with surrogate Nigerian princes turning up on every street corner to tell you about their money problems. Surrogates doesn't explore the criminal possibilities a great deal, instead settling for showing us a few operators who don't look quite like their avatars.

However it's hard to fault the movie for not covering every aspect of an extremely broad theme. It's a well-paced, exciting film with decent effects and a serious tone. But most of all it brims with ideas about robotics and the hazards of using machines to live vicariously, whilst subtly demonstrating how relevant these themes are to our modern lives. It's actually rather clever.

Film Details

Year of release: 2009

Categories: Films
Science fiction

Classification: 12

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4 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson
Read more about Jonathan Mostow