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Cinema Sunday (11/1/09) November 1, 2009

Posted by monty in movies.
Tags: , ,


I’m a big fan of the cinematic double-feature.  For years (since 1995, actually), I’ve enjoyed my weekend tradition of plotting out showtimes and catching whatever new releases don’t look like complete wastes of my time.  I’m fairly easy to please, so occasionally the double feature stretches to a triple-feature, and a handful of times I’ve spent the entire day at the theater, seeing several movies in a row.  It’s escapism at its finest and, more practically, a few hours in the dark helps me recharge my batteries for the coming week.

Given my passion for these events, it’s rare that a movie is so bad that it robs me of the desire to complete my double-feature.  Surrogates is one of those movies.

Due to budget cuts, all faculty in the University System of Georgia have to take three furlough days each semester.  Friday was one of mine; it was a foggy, rainy day, and I had planned to catch a screening of Surrogates at one theater, and then skip a couple miles over and watch Law Abiding Citizen in a different theater. I didn’t want anything heavy or Oscar-worthy.  The plan was to buy some popcorn and then spend my afternoon with visual and edible junk food.  It was going to be a good day.

Until Surrogates started, that is, and within a couple minutes I realized what a hideous mistake I had made.  The movie has a nifty premise.  At some unspecified point in the near future, something like 99% of the world’s population lives vicariously through robotic surrogates.  The host hooks himself into the system, and his surrogate – often a fitter, better-looking version of the host – goes about his daily business, guided by the host’s consciousness.  The host can’t be harmed no matter what happens to the surrogate – there’s some sort of science-fictiony fail-safe device that insulates the host from any damage the surrogate incurs.  Or at least that’s the case until a couple surrogates turn up dead, their robotic eyes burned out, and their hosts rotting away at home with liquefied brains.

Not a place bad to start, right?  Director Jonathan Mostow is responsible for two little-seen gems – Breakdown, a finely calibrated thriller starring Kurt Russell, and U-571, a decently suspenseful submarine flick that becomes even more impressive when one considers that it stars Matthew McConaughey and Jon Bon Jovi (Mostow also directed Terminator 3, but the less said about that, the better) – so I thought he’d be ideal for a smart little action movie. Throw in Bruce Willis, whom I always find entertaining – doubly so when he gets to sport a ridiculous-looking hairpiece – and Ving Rhames as a dreadlocked prophet, and the pieces for an entertaining, pulpy ride were definitely in place.  But man oh man, did this baby ever fail to deliver.

One thing to say first is that I gladly and willingly turn myself over to the director when I go to the movies.  I’m not a resistant viewer, or one who bitches about lapses in logic or science.  I’m a firm believer in the willing suspension of disbelief, and I happily go along for the ride.  But to get me on board, you’ve at least got to make an effort, and Surrogates is the most amateurish-looking movie I’ve seen in quite a while.  As befits a movie about robots, it’s fairly special-effects-heavy, what with robots running fast and jumping high, and cars and helicopters crashing hither and yon, and funny-looking guns shooting bluish bolts of lightning.  All of this would be well and good if it didn’t look like the effects were designed on Mostow’s nephew’s home computer using iMovie, and then the actors were filmed using the most obvious blue-screen backdrops since Jimmy Stewart went for a drive in Vertigo.

The movie focuses on Willis’ detective character, Tom (apparently your surrogate can go to work for you, because that’s how we first meet him), trying to figure out who killed the surrogates and their hosts.  When Tom’s surrogate is put out to pasture for reasons I won’t relate here, Tom himself has to venture out into the real world to do the detective work himself.  At various times throughout the movie we see the hosts at home, and it looks like the main attraction of having a surrogate is that you really get to let yourself go.  Willis is paunchy and grizzled, and Radha Mitchell and Rosamund Pike (Willis’ partner and wife, respectively) are also deglamorized – pale, veiny, and frizzy-haired.

For the next hour or so Tom does his detective thing, which could have been fun by itself, but Mostow and the screenwriters have also tried to shoehorn in a romantic subplot where Tom tries to reconcile with his estranged wife, who’s apparently addicted to surrogacy.  All of these scenes are profoundly awkward, like Willis and Pike realized at some point during shooting just what kind of movie they were in and decided they’d do less harm to their careers if they didn’t fully commit to the ridiculousness required by the plot.

As these things usually go, the plot becomes increasingly and unnecessarily complicated as Tom uncovers the conspiracy at the heart of the murders.  We get loads of fake reveals and bogus epiphanies that I guess are supposed to dazzle the audience, but none of it really matters because we stopped caring about anything on the screen half an hour ago.  There’s exactly one virtuoso sequence toward the end of the movie that had me nodding in satisfaction, but by then it would have taken the heavens opening and the theater filling with cherubim to compensate for the phony dialogue, wooden acting, and sub-Atari 2600 special effects that preceded it.

Surrogates is probably the worst movie I’ve seen this year, and that’s saying something, because I also saw Jennifer’s Body.


Current listening:

Tindersticks waiting for the moon

Tindersticks – Waiting for the Moon

Last movie seen:


The Exorcist (William Friedkin, dir.)



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