You’d be hard-pressed to find someone today talking up 2009’s “Surrogates,” but the science fiction gem has never been more relevant.
Bruce Willis’s film features a world where people never leave their houses and interact through perfect human-looking machines.
Open any blog or cable news channel and chances are you’ll find people arguing about the Covid-19 pandemic. Should we reopen society and save the economy? Or should we put all our faith in scientists claiming this digital life is the new normal until a vaccine is found?
No matter where you fall on the spectrum, there’s little doubt that quarantine orders have changed the way we live. More people are working from home, ordering in, interacting digitally — and it’s all being done out of a mass fear.
It’s what makes “Surrogates” the perfect movie to revisit at the moment. Willis’ film presents the ultimate quarantine world, one which, even at the time, didn’t seem all that far off. The digitalization of society has kept people inside their homes more and relying on machines to perform increasing amounts of daily tasks.
But enough of this serious talk. This is a Bruce Willis movie!
“Surrogates,” based on an acclaimed graphic novel by Robert Venitti and Brett Weldele, was a bit of a dud in theaters. With a massive $80 million production budget, it couldn’t even bring in $40 million domestically. Critics were equally non-responsive to the film, though there were some praises from folks like Kurt Loder.
Directed by Jonathan Mostow (“Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines”), the film is interesting in that it’s never the wall-to-wall action movie we expect it to be nor the wacky commercial art piece it could have been.
With a concept like this, Mostow could have put together the next “Fifth Element,” if he wanted.
But this defiance of expectations from all directions is exactly what makes “Surrogates” an oddly lovable B-movie. The film’s screenplay, by Michael Ferris and John Brancato, puts an emphasis on Willis’ characters’ struggle in his marriage and his own inner battle to accept a new world that most people have eagerly embraced.
It’s easy to see how our population could one day do the same.
Folks already troll through the internet anonymously with the freedom to say whatever they want without consequence. Others create social media profiles positively distorting their reality. The film’s concept ticks those aspects up to 11.
On top of people being allowed to be whomever they wish without ever having to leave their homes, surrogacy also provides a major downtick in crime, disease, war, etc.
Who couldn’t love this world?
Willis’ Tom Greer struggles nonetheless. He has a wife who refuses to speak to him except through her surrogate, and both are dealing with the loss of a son.
On top of this surprisingly personal angle, the writers mainly keep to a noir-style when it comes to the central mystery. Two people have been murdered — the first homicides in years — with a new weapon that can kill people through their surrogates.
While other filmmakers may have taken this story line and made Greer the driving force, he’s more of a gumshoe being thrust from one situation to another, always well-intentioned, but never quite putting the puzzle together until it may be too late.
FAST FACT: Bruce Willis made his Broadway debut in 2015 courtesy of the stage adaptation of Stephen King’s “Misery.”
“Surrogates” holds up for a variety of reasons, the first being Willis. The action star once stood out from his counterparts by playing heroes who admitted when they were in over their heads.
He brings that same energy to “Surrogates.” The performance marks one of the last times the actor truly seems like he’s putting his heart into a role before cashing quick paychecks on forgettable VOD movies.
Greer spends much of the movie looking like he just walked away from a mugging. Several scenes give Willis a chance to bring the sort of crumbling vulnerability he’s brought to quiet roles like “Unbreakable.”
Mostow also sets up several stunning action pieces, including one “Terminator”-style scene where Greer, through his surrogate, chases a suspect and is literally being torn apart while he does it.
The movie is not without its flaws. At 89 minutes, one can feel some patchwork here and there, like the film was cut back at some point for something more commercial and quick, not realizing this film doesn’t fit that mold.
The film boasts a slick look that mostly holds up years later, there are moments where the contrast between surrogate and human operator is taken a little too extreme and can feel corny, especially when some of the main actors are “uglied” up by the makeup department.
“Surrogates” deserves a higher place in Willis’ filmography though, not only for its striking style and the man’s performance, but also because its ideas grow more interesting and thought-provoking every single year. It asks the question: “what is the human cost of a digital, quarantined world?” That cost may not be one that can easily be seen through facts and figures. People were never meant to be defined by such things.
Through Greer, we enter an extreme reality that’s frightening because it feels only a few steps away from our own … especially now.
Zachary Leeman is the author of the novel “Nigh” and has written for publications such as Breitbart News, LifeZette, BizPac Review, and RT.