Surrogates delivers; the fate of sci-fi cinema uncertain.

Posted on 29 September 2009 by Quaid

We’ve been blessed with a couple of pretty decent sci-fi flicks coming out.  Last month we got District 9, and it was somehow both an action romp in the tradition of Peter Jackson splatter fests as well as an interesting social and political satire–all wrapped up in an aliens-as-the-good-guys sci-fi flick.

Surrogates_PosterAnd this weekend we got Surrogates, a movie that will most definitely not achieve the buzz of District 9 but that takes an interesting science fiction conceit and runs with it.  The basic premise?  Humans have replaced themselves in every-day life with life-like robots who are controlled via the user’s mind.  It’s a safer life as users can experience the world from the comfort of their own homes, but someone has found a way to kill a user through his or her surrogate.

It’s one of the more interesting concepts in recent memory, and the movie is a good thriller with some fun technological thematic elements.  While watching it, though, I had to ask myself the question: does the plot distract from what could have been a much more interesting exploration of ideas?

The answer says something not just about Surrogates, but also about the state of sci-fi movies in general.  Futuristic fiction has always been a way to explore philosophical and technological possibilities.  These stories were first and foremost about ideas, and these ideas informed the plot and characters.  Today, though, there is a huge push to have sci-fi movies be about the plot and the tech…an excuse to have humans doing superhuman things, to show off cool gadgets, and to explore action-packed, over-the-top plot lines.  The ideas exist only to service these run-of-the-mill plots, and I think the sci-fi genre has suffered because of it.

For example, Surrogates opens with a documentary-style rundown of the “history” in which the story takes place.  We walk through a fourteen year timeline that shows us how the surrogate technology developed, was received, has caused controversy, and eventually changed the face of the globe.

And this opening five minutes is more interesting than anything else in the movie.  The film is screaming that it wants to be a hardcore socio-political exploration of the effects of technology on relationships, and I was all about it.

surrogates-posterBut Hollywood knows that if you have Bruce Willis in a movie, there’d better be a murder mystery plot.  Stuff needs to explode, gun battles must ensue, and one of the characters must be struggling to get over the death of a child.


I mean, it’s not that the plot of Surrogates is really bad or that it totally abandons the themes set up by its conceit.  No, what bugs me is that the film seems to be doing a paint-by-numbers plot simply because the filmmakers say “It’s gotta be a thriller.” So while the movie does explore questions of privacy and the loss of human connection in a digital age, these themes are peppered-in quietly as if the filmmakers feel they have to apologize or keep themselves in check from becoming too challenging.

It’s something that is too prevalent in modern films.  I can understand a filmmaker’s frustration.  If you leave out the themes that your subject matter stirs up, then the critical world will condemn you as shallow and boring.  If you insert too much heady, philosophical musing, then you get labeled an “art film” or lose your thrill-seeking popcorn audience.

I can almost see the studio executives just offscreen whispering into director Jonathan Mostow’s ear, “Remember, all this sci-fi stuff is there to serve the story.  It’s all about the story and characters.  Remember that.”

What’s my response?  Screw that.  Sci-fi movies don’t have to be about crafting a great three-act narrative.  The themes are king as this is one of the only genres left that still has an inherent ability (and responsibility?) to make social, political, and technological commentary.

Surrogates1In short, nobody gives a damn about Bruce Willis’s dead son.  Instead, any true sci-fi fan wants to know about the intricacies of how surrogacy has affected the ideas of identity and love and interpersonal communication.  Mostow gets this, and the small, throwaway details we get are fantastic…I just wish he’d had the balls to make these smaller elements the subject of the entire film.

There is a nice little subplot with Willis attempting to connect to his surrogate-dependent wife, and this relationship paints the decisions that are made at the end of the film–an ending which is trying really hard to become an intense social commentary and open question to the audience.  These elements, though, feel cursory and obvious…a great starting point that the film never fully explored.

Because we have to find out who the real killer is.

In the end, I still enjoyed the movie immensely.  I know I’m being harsh; this one was more of an idea-driven sci-fi movie than most we have seen in recent years.  But I think that’s what set me off.  I could tell that everyone involved really wanted this to be a great sci-fi exploration of technology’s affect on human interaction.  I know the movie has a lot to say.  I just wish the filmmakers could have said it flat out, without feeling the need to coat their ideas in such a standard thriller.  I wish they would have dug just a little bit deeper.

True sci-fi is a dying genre being ever-so-slowly replace with sci-fi/fantasy.  We’re getting more and more futuristic films and less and less real science fiction.  I loved the Star Trek reboot–it was a lot of fun.  But there’s got to be a place for smart, lower-budget, intimate movies about technology, the future, and what it all means for the human race, right?

Here’s hoping.  Because it’s only a matter of time before someone decides to remake 2001: A Space Odyssey.                           

1 Comments For This Post

  1. ???? mcm Says:

    iwc 7days

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