"We're not meant to experience the world through a machine." These words, handed down by a character called The Prophet, fall on deaf ears in the futuristic—but hardly unfamiliar—world of Surrogates, a rare contemporary science-fiction film that doesn't want to stomp on your face to get your attention. Yes, Jonathan Mostow's latest pumps plenty of action into the proceedings, but Surrogates is more in the vein of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days than, say, Avatar or, heaven forfend, Transformers. Though the notion of avatars, or "surrogates" is hardly new thematic material, it is the vital issue of modern science fiction for reasons that should be obvious, and screenwriters Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato (Terminator Salvation) explore it in a lively and reasonably provocative manner within the sci-fi action movie form.
Speaking of genre...Surrogates does a nice job of planting its murder mystery as the seed from which the action and themes sprout. In the world of the film, synaptic technology has progressed to the point that people have robotic surrogates, android avatars that do and say whatever we think. Precipitous drops in “violent crime, communicable disease and discrimination” follow, but so does our disconnection from the essence of human interaction and our addiction to fantasy, like virtual sex in bodies that look however we choose for them to look.
Virtual Self Industries has the market cornered ("Design Yourself" "Life. Only Better"), but when the son of CEO Lionel Canter (James Cromwell) is murdered while in surrogate form,the man and his business are threatened. Enter FBI agents Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) and Jennifer Peters (Radha Mitchell), whose investigation quickly leads them to an anti-surrogacy faction. The Dreads want to return the world to a surrogacy-free zone (the Human Coalition Reservation being a dilapidated ghetto). But their Prophet (Ving Rhames) is hiding something...
One would be forgiven for thinking Hollywood had given up entirely on the mystery genre, but this story includes a couple of nice twists, and the action sequences are fresh, once more proving Mostow an underrated helmer. Best of all, Willis delivers some nicely subtle work as a man realizing that—despite the addictive unreality of a virtual self—he might prefer life in his own body. As presented here, the concept is intriguing and reasonably credible, enough to keep one in the story despite questions about certain logistics (despite an almost entirely converted society, there's little sense of the impact of class on access to the technology: is it subsidized, or do the poor go without?).
Mostow's adaptation of the graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele happily aims up instead of dumbing down. The setting of 2017 sounds awfully soon for so much techno-social change, but then the seemingly absurd notion of disconnecting operators using surveillance and instant warrants isn't even a hop away from the Patriot Act. Surrogates isn't a classic, but it's a smart little genre outing, an endangered species in modern Hollywood.
Surrogates particularly impresses on high-definition Blu-ray with its brilliant color. Disney shows pinpoint accuracy in transporting the distinctly detailed image from the theater's bigger screen to your home theater's big screen. The picture gives a nice illusion of depth, and neither the motion of Mostow's action nor the variance in visual elements (from sleek to earthy) trips up the transfer, as digital artifacting is nowhere to be found. Any variance in picture quality owes purely to director Jonathan Mostow's visual intentions, as a way of distinguishing the real from the phony. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is pleasingly in your face and around it, with powerful effects and fine immersion; dialogue never gets drowned out, even in punishing action scenes.
Those who (like me) wish Surrogates would get more credit will surely enjoy the audio commentary by director Jonathan Mostow, who discusses the adaptation of the story and development of the characters, as well as the various design elements and production challenges he faced in bringing it all to the screen.
The featurette "A More Perfect You: The Science of Surrogates" (14:34, HD) allows scientists, businessmen and Hollywood folk to chat about the issues in the film, as they relate to the futuristic story and the brave new world we're entering today. Interviewees include Mostow, CEO of The Institute for Global Futures Dr. James Canton, special makeup effects supervisor Howard Berger, Aesthetic Prosthetics co-owner Stefan Knauss, Biodesigns CEO Randall Alley, production designer Jeff Mann, producer Todd Lieberman, visual effects supervisor Mark Stetson, Bruce Willis, Director of Osaka University's Intelligent Robotics Lab Prof. Hiroshi Ishiguro, screenwriters Michael Ferris & John D. Brancato, Anybots founder/CEO Trevor Blackwell, UC Berkeley professor of Mechanical Engineering Dr. Homayoon Kazerooni, Radha Mitchell, James Francis Ginty, Rosamund Pike, and Jack Noseworthy.
"Breaking the Frame: A Graphic Novel Comes to Life" (6:33, HD) includes bits of animated comic-book art as well as a discussion of the adaptation. Participants include Willis, producer Max Handelman, graphic novel writer Robert Venditti, graphic novel illustrator Brett Weldele, Mostow, and Pike.
Rounding out the disc are four "Deleted Scenes" (6:03, HD) and the "'I Will Not Bow' Music Video by Breaking Benjamin" (3:49, HD).
Science-fiction fans won't regret catching up with Surrogates if they missed it in theaters, while those who didn't miss it are likely to want to add it to the shelf.
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