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How Green Was My Uncanny Valley: Surrogates (2009)

November 21, 2010

Bruce Willis, wearing his watch on his right hand, in the Straight to DVD release Surrogates

Once in a great while a film comes along that is so awesomely bad attention must be paid. And when the film stars Bruce Willis I am unable to resist it:

More often than not when there are hopes to be dashed at the box office, my beloved Bruce Willis seems to be the one doing the dashing. Because the very thought of a new film starring Mr. Willis is enough to get my ass into the theater I’ve had more than a few opportunities to have my fortunes reversed.

Sadly, I didn’t even get a chance to see Surrogates in theaters, where it barely made a ripple. If you’ve already seen I, Robot, you’ve seen the themes Surrogates explores given far better treatment. But don’t let that stop you from seeing this hot mess, which is too ridiculous to be believed. Surrogates features Bruce Willis in an earnest hairpiece, which is usually an excellent indication the film in question will be exceptionally cheesy. Surrogates – like other Bruce Willis box office misfires such as The Last Boy Scout, Striking Distance and its evil cousin Mercury Rising – is my kind of bad film, boasting high production values, ambitious themes and painfully awful execution of those themes. Picking on films that are low budget and riddled with fail doesn’t do it for me. It’s far more satisfying to select a title, pose the question, “Hey, how bad can it be?” and regret posing the question in the first place. Surrogates is that kind of film. The film is so silly that within minutes of dispensing its opening credits all its credibility was completely evaporated. Which frankly, was a relief for me. I was concerned that the film wouldn’t show its true self until well after the end credits rolled. Fortunately, after a few successful moments – unlike the surrogates – the film dispensed with facade and got to work being wonderfully cheesy and unintentionally hilarious.

It started out fine with efficient exposition, which seemed to underscore the potential for the film to be efficient in all aspects of its flawed story. Many of the actors featured in the opening credits were actually pretty decent, but soon they were banished and never heard from again. By the time director Jonathan Mostow’s name appeared in the credits, the quality of the acting had declined considerably. Ving Rhames appeared on screen with some kind of road kill cradling his skull like a migraine and a performance cribbed from both The Oracle and Morpheus from The Matrix. Perhaps Bruce and Ving wanted to reunite on screen under decidedly less grim circumstances, but this film is no place for enjoyable actors doing quality work. There were far too many actors who I wanted tap on the shoulder and ask, “What’s a fine thespian like you doing in a film like this?” Radha Mitchell, who was wonderful in High Art, dons a wig stolen from Kate Hudson’s Le Divorce character and moves jacked from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (also directed by Mostow) and it all goes terribly wrong.

The titular “surrogates” are digital blow up dolls who engage in all the activities humans used to – like work crap jobs, date inappropriate people and do drugs that resemble both the look and functionality of the cylindrical wands used to jump start failing hearts – except the humans are now strapped into Barcaloungers and aren’t nearly as foxy as their surrogates would indicate. Essentially, Surrogates is a sci-fi treatment of what happens most Saturday evenings in the forums of OK Cupid. But wait, suddenly James Cromwell wanders into frame, reprising his I, Robot role, except nobody told him he’s in an entirely different film.

I had questions, which Surrogates couldn’t seem to answer:

  • Why were there restaurants and bars if surrogates were the ones occupying those spaces?
  • Why didn’t the people just get fed intravenously and wear catheters if they weren’t going to be leaving those chairs for extended periods of time?
  • Why was the nerdy gamer tech dude one of the few “meatbags” amongst the surrogates? Wouldn’t he have been an early adopter, given the entire film seems based in some nerd fantasy?
  • Why were surrogates shown using phones? couldn’t they just uplink or hotlink or something?
  • Why did I love this movie so much, despite being fully aware of how corny it was?

And so forth…

Boris Kodjoe is on board, looking bored and trying to convince us he’s Chi McBride; or at least his character – the long suffering supervisor – in I, Robot. Kodjoe is as wooden as a set of Lincoln Logs, though is incredibly easy viewing, which perhaps is the whole point. See, that’s the thing with Surrogates, it seems to think it has a lot of provocative commentary to offer, as though the themes explored have never received any cinematic explorations and they’ve just invented the wheel. Not only did the film not invent the wheel, Surrogates couldn’t even figure out how to make the damn thing roll. Surrogates tugs at one thread too many and the damn sweater comes unraveled. Nothing can save, what must have seemed on paper to be a good idea. Not the stunning visuals, the reasonably engaging action or the amusing phoned-in performance of its star Willis whose lengthy career has demonstrated his ability to be the only redeeming quality of an otherwise irredeemable film.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. November 21, 2010 2:59 am


    Though having only watched previews, I enjoyed your review.

  2. evmaroon permalink
    November 21, 2010 3:01 am

    Was it also kind of like Blade Runner, but with ample lighting? I can’t tell! Was it hoping to be the sci fi equivalent of Pulp Fiction, because your screen caps make me think of that film. Great synopsis and critique–you almost make me want to watch it, but I think I’ll stick to the third season of Damages instead.

  3. November 21, 2010 3:06 am

    Yeah ev,

    Blade Runner, to me, remains one of the more underrated thrillers of all time.

  4. evmaroon permalink
    November 21, 2010 3:10 am

    Who knew it would be the one-hit wonder for Sean Young? She never really had another great role. I could watch that movie again and again and it would never get old.

  5. November 21, 2010 3:18 am

    …and, now, as a grownup, Roy Baty’s final words show me the appreciation he has come to have for life and its frailty, the meaning of existence. Until now, I never really understood the gravity of his last words.

  6. November 21, 2010 7:08 am

    I agree, this was my kind of bad movie – the one where the whole time I keep asking, “wait, is this intentional??” and I love that it went from 1 week in the theater and straight to netflix-instant!

  7. November 21, 2010 8:37 am

    I agree, this was my kind of bad movie – the one where the whole time I keep asking, “wait, is this intentional??” and I love that it went from 1 week in the theater and straight to netflix-instant!

    I love that it offered “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” no real competition at the box office. There were moments in the film I could not believe. I kept going, “No, seriously?” and feeling sorry for Bruce Willis.

  8. November 21, 2010 8:55 am

    Who knew it would be the one-hit wonder for Sean Young? She never really had another great role. I could watch that movie again and again and it would never get old.

    Young had two fabulous roles after Blade Runner! The female lead in No Way Out and smaller role as Mrs. Gekko in Wall Street.

    Surrogates isn’t anything like Blade Runner; everyone’s aware and in agreement there are surrogates and using them is like us using cell phones and internet. It’s more like films such as Johnny Mnemonic or I, Robot. Actually it is exactly pretty much a rough sketch of I, Robot, with the exception that the “robots” in question are neutral, operated by humans and legitimately seem uninterested in harming each other. Robots turning against humans isn’t the central conflict in the film. However, human mistrust of robots is.

  9. November 21, 2010 10:26 am

    This review may be the best thing that ever happened to this movie; once a horde of Fry Buttians insists on seeing it, we might double its box office!

  10. evmaroon permalink
    November 21, 2010 10:58 am

    Oh yes, Wall Street! I didn’t see No Way Out, but now I’ll go see it. I would love to watch her in anything worth her.

  11. November 21, 2010 11:19 am

    @evmaroon: I have exciting news for you: Sean Young will be appearing shortly on television as part of Skating with the Stars.

    I promise I didn’t just make that up for you, no matter how it sounds.

  12. November 21, 2010 12:10 pm

    @RaymondJ – I saw that too and I am very excited! Also, is it true she was turned down for DwtS?

  13. November 21, 2010 1:10 pm

    how bad this movie is drives me crazy. I couldn’t believe how bad it was. It reminded me of getting all excited to watch Bandits.

  14. November 21, 2010 1:30 pm

    @1sttimeoffender – Ha. I loved Bandits, but I know exactly what you mean about its badness. It should have been far better. The execution of its humorous premise was disappointing.

  15. hsofia permalink
    November 22, 2010 3:02 am

    Sean Young was pretty good in Cousins, too. But, then again, so was everybody (except the writers). She might have been a little overshadowed by the likes of Isabella Rossellini and Lloyd Bridges, but who wouldn’t be?

  16. November 22, 2010 11:05 am

    Cousins was awful. I hate when Americans think they can or should remake a vastly superior French film. Everyone in that movie stank, especially Young.

  17. November 22, 2010 7:44 pm

    I remember the sex scene in No Way Out being the fulfillment of boyhood fantasies of all my friends, myself included. At that time she was better known in my circle as “That chick from Stripes…no, not that chick, the one that was in Dune and Blade Runner.” Thank you for bringing such awkward memories back to the surface.

  18. November 23, 2010 8:25 am

    I think maybe if you had ever logged in to SecondLife (that somewhat controversial “game”) you would have a better handle on some of the questions. I got to play SL for about a year and it was a very telling experience, because when you create your avatar you literally can make it into whatever you want, and people did! Perhaps that’s another story for another time. But it relates to “Surrogates” in a way that I think would give a different perspective.

    It’s always fantastic to read a review that has more thought and entertainment value to it than the film to which it critiques, so many kudos for this! I would mention the film that I first thought of as I was reading this commentary and that’s “Color of Night,” which was another Willismess of epic proportions. the great thing about that one is that if you think of it as a comedy, it actually works! It sounds like the same can’t be said for “Surrogates.” Pity.

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