June 29, 2010

Justify My Netflix: Surrogates

(Like many Netflix customers, I too can get quite lax with the timely watching and returning of my movies, which of course defeats the entire purpose of having a flat-rate rental plan in the first place. To combat that, I am now writing standardized mini-reviews of each and every movie I end up watching through Netflix, both instantly and on DVD. Don't forget, all previous 'Justify My Netflix' reviews can be found on CCLaP's main movie page.)

Surrogates

Today's movie: Surrogates, 2009 (Amazon | IMDB | Netflix | Wikipedia)

Why I added it to my queue: Because I recently had a chance to read the 2006 graphic novel on which it is based, which made me aware for the first time that a film version even exists. And given that it was a big-budget sci-fi actioner starring Bruce Willis, it's unusual that I wouldn't even remember a movie like that existing, which almost made it worth putting in my queue alone.

The reality: Surprisingly great! In fact this is my second sci-fi actioner this month (along with this year's Daybreakers) to feature a script much smarter than its B-movie designation is usually known for, and special effects that are more subtle and hence more powerful than the normal "first-weekend killer" movie of this type. Essentially taking the idea of Second Life turned real, the movie like the comic book is set in a universe of five-sense robots that people can send out into the world from a virtual-reality interface at home, which has become so popular that nearly 100 percent of all middle-class people and richer now use their surrogates for daily life instead of their biological bodies; the story itself, then, is basically a murder mystery, as Willis' middle-aged cop character is assigned to investigate a case where an electrical shock to a surrogate ended up frying the brain of its owner back home as well, which causes him to fall down a rabbithole of conspiracy theories, radical religions, and the handful of autonomous communities across the US where surrogates have been banned.

And indeed, this is one of those rare cases where the movie is actually better than the book it was based on, because of the adapters making a number of key changes that really enhance the story -- like the fact that this electrical device not only kills the robot but the human behind it, an element missing from the graphic novel, or making Willis' surrogate look exactly like his biological body only younger and sexier, an inventive special effect that along with dozens of other minor touches like this really makes the movie sparkle. (And without going into detail, the story's ending has been similarly tweaked to a cumulatively greater effect, so don't assume you know how things will end just because you've read the book.) Like the best speculative projects, Surrogates raises all kinds of interesting ethical questions but only on the periphery of its actual storyline, letting you take those questions home with you and turn them over and over in your own head, and I have to admit that this was one of the more enjoyable sci-fi movie experiences I've had in the last year. Why wasn't this movie a hit? Why is it barely even remembered less than a year after it was first released? Whatever the answers, I encourage all my fellow SF fans to check this out when you get a chance, easier than ever now that it's available digitally through Netflix Streaming.

Strangest piece of trivia: During the opening news montage explaining the invention and rise of the surrogates (mirroring the metafictional elements of the graphic novel), the Asian doctor shown is the actual Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University, who recently built one of the world's first real android body doubles.

Worth your time? Yes

Filed by Jason Pettus at 12:30 PM, June 29, 2010. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |