Saturday, July 31, 2010

Resistance is Futile

Not long ago, I was bemoaning how poorly a well-known graphic novel, Whiteout, had been translated to the big screen. Among other things, the film simply didn't translate into the riveting entertainment I'd hoped for when I rented it. In writing that review, I neglected to mention two other films that had also been born from graphic novel format. One is obvious, the biggest blockbuster of them all, Watchmen, which I did not enjoy (in the immortal words of Jay Sherman: "It Stinks") nearly as much as I should have.

The other was released last fall to much less fanfare: Surrogates, based on the relatively little-known comic series of the same name which ran from 2005 to 2006, and was written by Robert Venditti and drawn by Brett Weldele. Despite never having heard of the graphic novel, my first impressions of the movie trailers that preceded the movie's release were mostly positive: In a world where humans control synthetic bodies called surrogates to carry out everyday tasks, the future almost looks idylic as violent crime is down to a standstill and even if an operator's surrogate is accidentally damaged or destroyed, no harm can come to the user. People never even have to leave their homes.

Of course, this wouldn't be much of a film if that was all there was to it. When two people are murdered by a weapon that somehow manages to kill the user as well as disable the surrogate - and one of them happens to be the son of the Surrogate's creator, Dr. Lionel Canter (James Cromwell), it's immensely remarkable because these have become the first murders in fifteen years. Also throwing trouble into the mix are nationwide pockets of people who live on anti-surrogate land that they call Dread Reservations and are led by the charismatic Prophet (Ving Rhames). Claiming that Surrogacy has caused people to forget how to be human, a Surrogate attempting to enter these zones would be violently opposed by the Prophet's fanatical followers.

What I had at first found fascinating about Surrogates was that it had been filmed in my hometown (and where I still call home) of Boston, MA, and some of the surrounding towns. It was actually interesting for once to see familiar territory, as far too often films claiming to be in Boston film elsewhere, Toronto for instance. I was sure that would be the only thing I would enjoy about the movie, especially after a less-than-stellar opening which was informative as to how this universe came to be but otherwise not entertaining. However, the slick storytelling and visuals quickly vacated those thoughts from my mind, and I proceeded to mindlessly enjoy one of last year's more underrated films.

The story moves along as a brisk pace as we're introduced to FBI agents Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) and Jennifer Peters (Radha Mitchell) as they take on the double murder case. Like most people, they use surrogates for their daily tasks, though Greer seems to tire of the entire surrogate idea, especially as his wife (Rosamund Pike) seems to use their surrogacy to escape the trauma of losing their son to a car accident. In fact, we barely see most people's real faces, as almost every major character is using a surrogate in place of their real bodies. In a major turning point of the film, Greer irreperably damages his surrogate in pursuit of the man suspected of committing the murders and must continue his investigation in person. He doesn't even remember the last time he left his home, and the movie does a good job explaining that, even seeing the world through a surrogate, reintroducing someone to the outside world after so long would introduce all kinds of mental trauma (such as anxiety, which is depicted). In his pursuit of the people responsible for the murders, he is also discovering a conspiracy to destroy the surrogates, and perhaps even those who would use them at all.

I've never read the graphic novel (or it's prequel, Surrogates: Flesh and Bone), but while I can't comment on the comic's art styles in comparison to the movie's, I can definitely say that from a quick synopsis of the comic's plot that the movie took numerous liberties with the plot, one for instance being that in the comic, there are no murders that push the book forward, only the desire to eliminate surrogacy by destroying the bodies. It's a good thing the movie changed that aspect, as in the comic's story, that would add to little more than vandalism. Also, in a positive turn, the leads of the comic, which had been two men, change, with one of them having eventually become Peters. Remember those few weeks ago when I decried the reduction of Whiteout's two lead females to one female because the studios wouldn't buy two female leads? Here's one for Surrogates showing some guts. And it's not as if Peters has been changed that way just so she can become someone's romantic angle, it's just a case of someone saying that they wanted a female for this role and made it happen.

Acting performances will never be considered the highlights of your typical action movie, that's why I was actually surprised by the level of performances shown in this film. Willis does a little above his typical acting level, while others like Cromwell, Mitchell, Pike, Jack Noseworthy and Boris Kodjoe puting forth solid performances, with nobody dragging the acting talent down. The only one I wasn't crazy about was was Rhames as the Prophet, as the character seemed a little too cliche in it's portrayal. I assume it was intentional, but I didn't think it was particularly smart to show one of the main villains of the movie in this way, though perhaps that aspect was derived from the comic. But the best performances may have been a collaborative. There's just something about the way a surrogate move and speaks that lets on that they're not the same as you and me. Besides the startling attractiveness of the surrogate, there's almost a robotic, unnatural way that they walk, talk, dance and interact that makes it easy to discern the differences, and whoever was responsible for making sure every last extra was moving just the right way deserves a ton of credit, as it did tons to assure the legitimacy of the piece's atmosphere.

The movie can hardly expect to be perfect, however. Though I understand that most people who are bigots rarely are well informed about the thing they're bigoted towards, it was a drag that no further intelligence could have been gleamed for the people in the Dread Reservation towards surrogacy. They were mostly portratyed as redneck gun-toting racists for the most part, and that, while accurate, was not wholely welcome when I hoped they would have some more higher understanding about why their way was better (or perhaps get an explanation for why the military didn't put a clamp down military-style on these pockets of resistance where they basically seceded from the Union). Critics have stated that the movie devolves to pure action-y for the final act of the film, and while that's at least partially true, it's done smartly with enough surprises that you want to find the next piece of the puzzle. It's all done smartly and never makes you feel like you're riding the wave, going only where they take you.

Smart is the best word I can associate with Surrogates, in fact. It's a slick film and probably the best film by occasional director Jonathan Mostow, who hadn't directed a film since 2003's Terminator 3. It's a great comeback film for Mostow and an extremely entertaining film in it's own right. Mostow might give Zack Snyder or Dominic Sena a lesson in how to make a good comic-movie adaptation. Maybe they'd learn something.


brian said...

you're joking? This movie sucked.

brian said...

Haha, I had a few drinks by the time I posted the previous comment. Still, I stand by it.

Gianni said...

Heh. Well, as good as it is to hear from you after so long, I can't agree with your opinion here. I thought the story was slick, smart and the acting was solid. Was it a GREAT movie? Hell no, but it was better than I ever expected it to be, and kept me on the edge of my seat.

McBreezies said...

That movie was good. I really enjoyed it and so did my parents when i showed them it. I agree with you that the acting was solid and the plot was good, the only bad thing was that the plot definitely slowed way down.

Anonymous said...

I would like to exchange links with your site
Is this possible?

Gianni said...

I'm open to talk about it. Drop me an e-mail and we'll work it out.