Surrogates

Surrogates posterBruce Willis has spent a lot of his career kicking in doors, but I bet this is the first time he’s had to do it just to get his wife out of bed. Surrogates is a disturbing story of man kind’s dependence on technology and susceptibility to control by fear.  In the not-too-distant future, mid-Sunday A.D., 98% of all humans live vicariously through life-like robots. They lie in chairs that look like the offspring of a La-Z-Boy and a virtual reality entertainment center (“stem chairs”), and rarely leave their homes. Their work, and all other interaction, is done by their “surrogates,” androids connected to their brain stems.

You may, of course, choose your own “surry.” You can be whatever gender, race, body type, or hair color strikes your fancy. It’s sort of a universal Stepford Wives. You see what your surry sees, and feel what it feels (except the pain, of course).

In the future, all murder scenes will look like this.

In the future, all murder scenes will look like this.

Needless to say, the casting crew had their work cut out for them on this one, even by Hollywood standards, searching for enough perfect-faced, perfect-bodied people to fill out the future streets full of sculpted robots. These, of course, are to be contrasted with the recluses controlling them from home, who have really let themselves go. Willis plays Tom Greer (and his surrogate), an FBI agent whose wife refuses to even set foot outside her bedroom “in the flesh.”

Greer plugs into a stem chair.

Greer plugs into a stem chair.

Greer has bigger problems, however, because early in the movie, what starts as a routine vandalism investigation (below), soon appears to be a double homicide – the first two homicides in the western world in several years. It seems that someone has developed a weapon capable of sending a signal through a surry that not only destroys the surry, but liquefies the brain of the user.

Robocop meets CSI. Got enough crackers for all that cheese?

Robocop meets CSI. Got enough crackers for all that cheese?

The initial theory is that this is subversive action by “Dreddies,” members of a colony where surrogates are outlawed. The Dreddies follow the leadership of  “The Prophet” (Ving Rhames, below), claim sovereignty over a small patch of ground, and spurn all advanced technology, using horses and buggies, and the like.

Ving Rhames, trying way too hard.

Ving Rhames, trying way too hard.

In chasing his man, Greer narrowly survives, and has his surry destroyed. The FBI takes him off the case and refuses to issue him a new one. Now, for the first time in years, he must leave his home and track the killer (you didn’t really think he’d obey his captain and stay off the case?) with only his own weak flesh at his command. His investigation takes him first to the Dreddie colony. But is The Prophet what he seems? (I’ll give you a hint: I brought it up.)

Would you tell this it wasn't your wife? Some guys are just never happy.

Would you tell this it wasn't your wife? Some guys are just never happy.

Willis could have earned a lot of kudos for this film if he’d allowed the makeup department to make his human self ugly. It appears however, that his agent fought not to lower his image one bit. Everyone else is hideous, giving a realistic portrayal of people who haven’t shaved, showered or brushed their teeth for several days. Willis’ acting is passable. His most memorable scene is probably one where he begs his wife, through the eyes of her surry, (Rosamund Pike) to let him see her again (above). The best acting in the movie is probably done by Rhada Mitchell, as the blond, buxom surry of Greer’s homely (work) partner, Peters. I say this because this surry is taken over by several different people in the course of the movie, so she’s always switching characters. She also gets a scene where she runs at incredible speed through the street, doing flips over cars, and so forth. Which raises a question that the movie never resolves: if the streets are now populated with super-strong, super-fast robots, why are there still so many cars?

It’s hard to say more without spoiling a decent flick. I’ll just say if you like sci-fi, or crime stories, Surrogates is worth a look. Not a classic, but exciting, involving and thought-provoking.

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World Trade Center

WTC poster

WTC poster

I confess: the second thing that went through my mind on September 11, 2001 (after the horror of the moment, of course) was “this will make a great film someday.” I would be mortified by this, except for the fact that I’m sure every member of my generation thought the same thing, if not as soon. Terrible as the day was, I was feeling a kind of thrill. I hadn’t been there for Pearl Harbor (although I did endure Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor), or for Kenedy’s assassination; moments when the country was instantly unified, if only for awhile. But I was here for a story that would be told and retold through many mediums. Already, I was starting to see the folk heroes that would emerge, the dramatic stories that would be reenacted – and probably embellished – for decades to come, and the moments, poorly filmed in life, that would look so spectacular done in a studio.

Apparently, director Oliver Stone had similar thoughts.

Nicolas Cage as John McLothlen

Nicolas Cage as John McLoughlin

If this sounds terrible, consider the millions of solid citizens who praised the frank depiction of the gore in Saving Private Ryan, or the millions who lined up to see Braveheart again and again. If it makes a difference that these stories happened longer ago, consider that it takes about four to five years for a film to develop from concept to finished product. In the first five years since 9/11 we had already seen two movies about it (Flight 93 was released Jan. 30 of 2006).

John McLothlen, the man.

John McLoughlin, the man.

It has now been three years since Stone’s World Trade Center was released and I first wrote this article. During that time we have seen September 11 return to its status as just another box on the calendar. American culture has gone back to infighting and second-guessing government (Stone himself directed an anti-war ad in April of 2007). This has to raise questions in the alert reader because there are dates far older – December 7, 1941 for instance – that Americans still observe every year. One has to wonder if an ably directed film could reignite American reverence for September 11 (if not what we learned from it).

Micheal Pena as Will Jimeno.

Micheal Pena as Will Jimeno.

Needless to say, however, that wasn’t what WTC was intended to do. Stone intended it as a tribute, probably due the recency of the event. As a tribute, the film delivers. It introduces two folk heros, Port Authority Officers John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and William Jimeno (Michael Pena), who spend most of the movie under a ton of rubble. Probably the best thing about it is that if anyone who was involved with planning the attacks ever sees it, and they probably will, they will be very disappointed. The jihadis behind the attacks get no attention whatsoever. The crash into the North Tower is heralded only by the shadow of a plane swooping across a building and a muffled explosion. The rest of the film follows several main characters through the rescue efforts. In short, every frame is devoted to the good, the valiance and the victory I hope we all remember from that day.

Will Jimeno, the man.

Will Jimeno, the man.

Decades will come and go, the pain brought on by that day will lessen and the grieving families will be names in dusty historical records. As the subject gets less sensitive, so will the movies. We’ll see body parts fly ala Saving Private Ryan and we’ll get to know the villains. But for now World Trade Center focuses on what should be focused on.

As McLothlen says at the end of World Trade Center, “Nine eleven showed us what human beings are capable of – the evil, sure. But also the good. People looking out for each other, for no reason other than that it was the right thing to do. It’s important to remember that. And to talk about it.”

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