Friday, October 09, 2009

Surrogates - Forget the Alternate Body, Get an Alternate Script

I guess it's about time to admit that I saw SURROGATES on opening night. (Onyx and I had passes to a free screening, and we were in the mood for some brainless Friday night on-screen action.) The fact that I feel as though I have to defend my decision to go see it should be indicator enough of what I thought about it.

Based on a graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, the screen adaptation is written by Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato, the writing duo that most recently disappointed Onyx with Terminator Salvation. The premise behind SURROGATES, which stars Bruce Willis, is that a detective in a world where 98% of humans live their lives remotely through surrogate robots of themselves must solve a string of homicides that has left both robots and their human operators dead. Theoretically, having a surrogate safeguards people against physical threat, since if their robot gets shot or hit by a car, all people have to do is disconnect from their surrogate command module long enough to activate a new robot. People can design their surrogate to look like anyone - kind of like second-life online - so in this near-future, city streets are clogged with supermodel robots controlled by balding, overweight slobs who haven't left their apartments in nearly 15 years. Romantic notion of the future, no?

One of the largest problems I had with SURROGATES is that no one seems to have bothered to ask some very basic, yet very essential developmental questions. For one, other than not being able to get hurt and being able to design your surrogate's appearance, we're given no indication why 98% of the human population has adopted this lifestyle. Yes, not getting hurt has its perks. And the movie does do a half-hearted attempt of explaining that surrogates have the sense of touch (though breezes right over the fact that watching your surrogate is more like watching TV than anything else). But there is never any real reason given for why almost everyone in the world has opted to stop going outside, stop directly communicating with loved ones and friends, stop having any sort of actual human interaction in favor of growing old in a chair, watching their younger-looking robot self live life for them. When I explain the premise to friends, their first question is always, "why would people want that?" I can't for the life of me explain it, and perhaps Ferris and Brancato couldn't, either.

The notion of a 98% utilization rate brings me to my next biggest gripe. As writers, we're hounded (or should be) to explain everything in the script, down to the smallest details. SURROGATES avoids major issues like it's its job, issues like how people can afford this complex mechanized versions of themselves. Just about everyone has one (if not more). Are we to assume that these are just given out on the street like fliers for Subway sandwiches? How can they have become so universal? In the intro to the movie, we learn that this all happened in a matter of 14 years. Fourteen years for near total acceptance of life through surrogates. I didn't buy it then, and I don't buy it now. Again, maybe the filmmakers couldn't answer this one, so they opted to sweep it under the rug.

There's a lot that's been deftly ignored in SURROGATES. In what must by now be in his contract, Bruce Willis once again plays a troubled cop with a broken family life who must win back his wife. Yet, the family stuff hardly plays a role in the movie at all. Sure, it affects his decision in the end, but the 88 minute run-time allows for much more character detail than we're given (not that I would have wanted to sit through much more of SURROGATES, mind you). There's a fairly major reveal with anti-surrogate movement leader Ving Rhames, but that's another thing that the final cut just dances right past. If you find yourself wondering why people who refuse to use surrogates are forced to live in slums worse than the aliens in DISTRICT 9 have, don't worry - you're not alone. You will, however, have to stop worrying about the answer, because you won't get that one, either.

The plot is convoluted and disappointing enough, but to me, it's these major omissions that are at the heart of the problems with SURROGATES. In the most recent issue of
Creative Screenwriting, there's an article about the film, in which Ferris and Brancato mention that they were racing to complete the script before the 2007-2008 WGA strike. As a result, they did very few drafts of this. Unfortunately for all involved and for audiences, it shows. Watch SURROGATES, but only as an example of why you have to answer (at the very least) the big questions in your alternate-reality flick.

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