Bruce Willis looks like shit in his new movie Surrogates, and that's the point. His robot self is cheesy, fake-looking and ridiculous, and the flesh-and-blood body slumped in a neural-net chair is saggy and fragile. Spoilers for Surrogates ahead.
Surrogates, opening today, is at its most potent when it reminds us just how much having a body totally sucks. Bodies break down, they get sick, and they fall apart. No wonder that everybody would rather jack into impervious, lovely robot bodies to face the world. Of course, it all goes horribly wrong, because somebody finds a way to destroy a robot "surrogate" and kill its operator at the same time. You won't be too shocked to hear that this turns out to be the result of a huge, confusing, nonsensical conspiracy in which nothing is what it seems.
There's been a lot of body horror involving technology lately — both Robert Downey Jr. and Jason Statham have had crude batteries inserted into their chest cavities, in Iron Man and Crank 2 respectively, and there was lots of cyborg self-loathing in Terminator Salvation. But Surrogates is the first movie I can remember seeing where the real self-loathing comes as a result of removing the body from technology.
When FBI agent Tom Greer, played by Bruce Willis, first ventures out into the world in his "meat bag" body, all of the robot-avatar people stare at him with pity, when they're not just ignoring him and elbowing him aside with their super strong robo-limbs. He's like the old man surrounded by perfect young people at the end of Logan's Run. The scenes of Willis staggering around the perfect robo-world, the stench of bodily decay coming off him, are extraordinarily powerful. They've managed to make him look way older and more decripit than he really is, while his ideal robot body (which we see a lot of early in the movie) is airbrushed into looking vapidly handsome.
And just to drive the point home, Willis takes more punishment than even an action-movie hero ought to be able to handle. He rarely manages to land a punch, but he's constantly being beaten, kicked, slammed, and caught up in nasty car accidents. Super-robots throw parking meters at his head and he barely ducks in time. He gets more and more bruised and slashed up, over the course of the film.
The movie aims to tell us that Willis' weakness and vulnerability is a result of too much reliance on technology — this is what happens when you lean on something too much, and then it's yanked away from you. But actually, you could just easily see Willis' decrepitude as proof that technology is awesome, and it's a mistake ever to yank yourself away from it.
The main thing standing in the way of that interpretation is how disturbingly candy-coated the robot bodies in the movie look. Sometimes, you start getting used to seeing the airbrushed loveliness of almost everyone in the film, and then you catch sight of a real person — or you just get a weird robot crowd scene — and you're unnerved once again. The movie has some really nice visual effects and concept design, especially in those scenes where we see the ugly, Terminator-esque endoskeletons under the immaculate skins.
And the movie definitely wants you to know that excessive reliance on technology is bad and wrong — it's one of the preachiest films I've seen in ages, and it's by no means subtle. Willis' character starts out being opposed to the use of robotic "surrogates," and his conviction rapidly hardens. Meanwhile, we are lectured constantly about the evil of using robot bodies to interact instead of communing in the flesh. And the people who are pro-Surrogate are always revealed to be evil, misguided or in need of an epiphany of some sort. Some of the preachiness comes from the Prophet (Ving Rhames), the leader of the anti-surrogate and generally Luddite resistance, but a lot of it comes from various mouthpiece characters, and bits of symbolism that are labeled "SYMBOLISM" in bright flashing colors.
The surrogates, of course, are a metaphor for our own reliance on technology to interact with the world. Our iPhones, our Blackberries, our laptops, our xBox lives. We're cutting ourselves off from real humanity by using these toys instead of going out and getting a sexually transmitted disease the way God intended.
The movie's preachiness is one huge problem — and it does get awfully tiresome after an hour or so of having messages shoved in your face — but the movie's other huge problem is that it is every bit as moronic as you'd expect from a film from the writers and director of Terminator 3. I went into this film trying to have no preconceptions, and hoping that T3 was just an aberration — but no, this film is the absolute definition of an idiotic action movie. Stuff happens for no particular reason, and there's a shocking twist every 10-15 minutes that comes out of nowhere, and then goes right back there. If you tried to diagram the plot, you'd wind up drawing an evil squiggle. One great source of plot twists is the fact that you never quite know who is really operating a robot surrogate.
Oh, and characters regularly say things like, "The only way to deal with addiction is to kill the addict!"
For some reason Surrogates reminded me of I, Robot. Maybe because both movies feature James Cromwell in a similar role. And they both have technology that everybody insists is safe inevitably biting us in the asses. But most of all, both movies have absolutely gorgeous concept design, amazing visuals, some really fun action sequences — and completely braindead storytelling. I would say Surrogates is slightly better than I, Robot, if only because it packs more of a punch to the gut.
Honestly, if you don't expect the plot to make sense, and if you enjoy giggling at ridiculous and often preachy dialog, you'll probably enjoy Surrogates a whole bunch. Bruce Willis keeps getting up, no matter what they throw at him. Even after his FBI boss says he's off the case, he keeps investigating the case. He's got some backstory involving a kid who died in an accident and a wife who's never really recovered, but mostly he's a stock-standard Willis character who won't quit until he gets to the truth. And there's nothing wrong with that.
The other thing that I really liked about Surrogates is the world-building. You get lots of interesting and sometimes horrifying hints about how this world works, including glimpsing an army "peace action" where robotic troops blow the shit out of meatsacks in some third-world country. And you sort of gather that poor people are stuck with shitty robot bodies, and you witness what looks like two surrogates beating up on a prostitute at one point. There's a nice undercurrent of corruption under the perfect shiny robot-sleeved world, which is way more effective than the movie's overt attempts to harangue us.
So to sum up: dumb movie, weak nonsense plot, incredibly preachy and sledgehammery. At the same time. it's a fun action movie with some nice set pieces, and the production design and world-building are really lovely. And it's mostly worth it for Bruce Willis' craggy, saggy, excessively mortal countenance, as he stumbles in some state of grievous injury through a landscape full of way too pretty people.