I freely admit it — I’m a big fan of director Jonathan Mostow. But sometimes you can feel a director slipping with each film and I really hope that with some more films under his belt and his name back in the writer’s credit, he can get himself back on track.
With his first theatrical outing he brought us a spectacular little film called Breakdown starring Kurt Russel and Kathleen Quinlan in a fight for survival along the highways of the back roads. This was co-written with the same writer he teamed up with to give us U-571 (Sam Montgomery) which brought bigger stars along with it such as Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel, and Jon Bon Jovi. It's a very claustrophobic and intense film that almost completely takes place under water and within the confines of a submarine yet manages to be gripping and interesting all the way through, which is a big deal for a guy who has no normal interest in the war genre.
For his third theatrical outing Mostow teamed up with one of the most powerful movie stars of all time, now governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger. He also brought along some new writers to the series, Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato. These four brought us the much maligned Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. I am a big supporter of this film. Most people hate it but it never took itself seriously, had some amazing robot-on-robot fight scenes, and gave us the first true downer ending of the whole series. And anyone who can’t find the beauty in the mayhem behind the never-ending scene of street destruction just needs to realize they're watching a movie about robots and really let their suspension of disbelief go crazy.
In Surrogates, Mostow’s latest directorial effort, he brings back the robots and the T3 writers but completely check their brains at the door. Thankfully they also brought along another one of the world’s reigning action stars, Mr. John McClane himself, Bruce Willis. Based on a graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, something seems to have been lost in the translation here. There are plenty of heady ideas but they're set against a whodunit that’s so obligatory you wish there was more action along the way to make up for what is totally lost in the story department. I guess this makes us not forget that the writing partners, while bringing us the likes of The Game, T3, and this summer's Terminator Salvation, also gave us Watchers 2, The Net, Primeval, and their worst film to date, Catwoman. Their writing is a mixed bag for sure but when they get it right it’s usually more than watchable, especially when they have a good director behind them such as Mostow or David Fincher (The Game).
In Surrogates the year of “present day” is never mentioned but it starts with an interesting set-up showing news clips and interviews that took place “14 years ago” when Dr. Canter (James Cromwell) has developed the technology behind the surrogate machines that allow people with disabilities to lead fully functional lives through the use of these machines, controlling them with their own brain cells. “Eleven years ago” it is said that the use of the surrogate machines became more mainstream and normal people began using them to lead their lives without the worry of pain or injury. “Seven years ago” we are told that because the population lives its lives more and more via surrogate and less and less real, the crime rate has dropped to only 1% across the country. “Three years ago” there is a rise in tension between humans who don't use surrogates and those who do, and a very District 9 “Human Coalition Reservation” is formed where only humans are allowed to enter. The reservation is run by “The Prophet” (Ving Rhames).
For the first time in years a murder has taken place in the present day. Dr. Canter’s son has been out partying through the use of a surrogate and someone uses a weapon against him which not only completely fries the identity card of the machine but the son’s brain as well. Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) is brought in to investigate with his partner Peters (Radha Mitchell). After speaking with Dr. Canter they stop off on another floor and speak with someone in the manufacturing department where they find out that a bunch of Army surrogates were returned with not only their identity cards missing but their optics removed as well. Eventually it is revealed that a machine called the overload device has been manufactured by the Army and can obviously kill the surrogates along with their human counterparts. Now Greer not only has to find out who killed Dr. Canter’s son but try to uncover who’s really behind the weapon, piece together the conspiracy behind its use and, as always, try to save humanity in the process.
Yes, it's standard action/sci-fi cliché here but it’s all in good fun and never meant to be too serious. Willis never really gets the chance to go into McClane mode until about an hour into the movie but there is a great scene that consists of him just standing in a hallway talking to his wife, Maggie (Rosamund Pike), conversing about simply just wanting the real her again and for them to stop living a marriage of machines. Another scene where the two argue in public and she simply shuts down her surrogate when the situation gets too tense for her brings a whole new meaning to the fight or flight condition.
The main drawback to the film is that it’s constructed as a mish-mash of lots of other sci-fi thriller films. Everything from the already mentioned District 9 and Teminator films to A.I., Minority Report, and even The Village have scenes or situations “borrowed” right out of them. Had the film either had bigger ambitions with its own theme, maybe followed the source material more closely, or just gone for the most broad approach and gone with the full-blown, big dumb action angle, things would have turned out much better than they do. I was pretty surprised with the final climax of the film, though, and for me it made up for most of the shortcomings along the way.