Don’t you just love seeing Bruce Willis getting his face punched in? No offense to the guy and I’m certainly not advocating any violence against his person – I’ve actually always liked old smirky face right back from his early days on Moonlighting, through the lean period of his first big screen outings in Blind Date and Sunset until he finally found his niche as put upon Detective John McClane in the Die Hard movies. But it was there that it became clear that Bruce had wisely given up on the idea of hiding the receding hairline and had hit upon a look that suited him like an old vest – doesn’t he just wear a beating well? A cracked lip, a bruised forehead, a scratched cheek, a trickle of blood down the back of the neck, a scar over the eye, a sticking plaster across the nose, dirty vest-top optional, Bruce Willis just has the kind of face that looks somehow a little bit better when it’s been reconfigured with a bat.
And, god love him, Bruce has subsequently been put through all manner of battering and bruising in his films, making him the ideal person to have need for a surrogate body. No more worries about harm and internal injuries, no fear of busting a joint or losing an arm making improbable leaps across the city in pursuit of terrorists. With a surrogate body, and a more youthful perfected image to take the stress and the damage like a Dorian Gray in reverse, there’s no lasting injury sustained by Bruce Willis’s FBI Agent Tom Greer controlling his synthetic body from the remote location of the comfort of his own home.
Much as even a plastic, metal and CGI enhanced Bruce looks great when ripped apart by anti-Surrogate protesters in their protected enclave and crucified on a post, for all the world a glorious martyr to the Hollywood cause, this isn’t what Bruce Willis has been hired for, and sure enough, the reason Greer is on the trail of a terrorist is because the man in question is not just offing surrogates – they’re easily replaceable – but has gained possession of a weapon that not just disables the mechanical device, but also fries the operator. When everyone uses a surrogate body in order to live an idealised life in complete safety and no-one would be mad enough to venture outdoors without one, the implications for the general public are grave, and for Bruce Willis himself, the implication is clearly that he’s heading for a serious facial working over.
If that’s all you’re looking for – and it’s just fine with me – then Surrogates is great. The idea is a terrific one, if not particularly original – the film credits a graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele as the source, but I had a nagging feeling that I’ve come across the concept and much of the plot before – it certainly owes a great deal to Philip K. Dick’s universe, particularly 'Ubik', and from what I can recall of it, perhaps K.W. Jeter’s 'Noir'. It’s a sound science-fiction concept that just pushes the idea of virtual reality, Second Life and total immersion that little stage further where you start to question the underlying need for such rapid technological advances in leisure activities and where they could possibly lead to – the military implications in particular are evident and are indeed touched upon here.
Sadly, the more interesting questions raised are never really explored in any real depth in Surrogates, which seems intent on aiming for the 12A certification of an I, Robot adventure rather than realistically questioning what operators would do if they had the freedom of a surrogate body – in whatever guise you like, male, female, child, with whatever personal “enhancements” you like – and the anarchic situation that would arise from being free from causing any physical or moral damage to either yourself or others. No, here everyone just wants to have a more youthful, perfect image constructed to go in and do their daily routine work at the office for them. The amount of holes you could punch in this visioning of the concept and the acceptance of it in legislation by Congress are innumerable, but much like the disappointing District 9, the film doesn’t really want the viewer to question this or indeed any of the intriguing moral questions that are raised and is prepared to settle for the standard CGI action sequences that ensue from standard Hollywood template #6 (of 10) which is that of a suspended law-enforcement officer going it alone to uncover a deeper conspiracy being enacted by the authorities and his superiors.
The development of that plot is well handled and serves its purpose in distracting from the real issues, only half-heartedly introducing some real human emotions in the loss of a child as an excuse for Greer and his wife’s withdrawal from reality (and I’m sure you could similarly imagine problems with self-image as being a reason for others embracing the opportunity of living through a surrogate body), the film rattling along instead to a tense, nail-biting conclusion without being over-reliant on special effects. The plot however is by-the-numbers, the sleepwalked performances of the cast by-the-book, no one putting a great deal of effort into delivering the poorly scripted dialogue, the whole enterprise shunted off on a director like Jonathan Mostow to bring in with the minimum of style or originality. The underlying idea of Surrogates (even the title lacks imagination) has a great deal of potential, but there doesn’t seem to be any interest in developing it nor indeed does there any longer seem to be anyone with the poetic vision to make a Blade Runner out of it. All we get is Bruce Willis with his busted face, which like I say is all well and good, but the ultimate feeling is that there’s been an opportunity for a truly great film here that has been wasted.