I’ve just seen Surrogate, the new Bruce Willis film, in a semi-packed theater. Unlike other films I’ve seen throughout the summer, this one had roughly the same amount of women and men in the audience, implying that SciFi/Fantasy films with an implied plot in the promos have larger appeal than franchise films solely promoted on the basis of their past as cartoons/graphic novels/video games, etc. This bodes well for the appeal of other upcoming films like the Book of Eli. At the same time, gender parity in the audience has very little do with gender parity in the film, and for that, Surrogates largely gets a fail despite the presence of female main characters.
The basic premise of the film is that the human race has given their lives almost totally over to robot surrogates (“surries”) that have changed the fabric of human society. The surries are mechanical hosts to human consciousness; each surrogate is specifically tuned to the human who owns and inhabits it but does not necessarily reflect the actual physical body of its host in anyway. The conflict in the film revolves around the ousting of the scientist who created surrogates from his company (VSI) who makes them and the “meat bag” sanctuaries where people who refuse surrogacy live on one side, and VSI and the surrogate dependent society on the other. Charged with uncovering this conflict and its repercussions for humanity, is Bruce Willis, channeling a less wisecracking, more broken, version of Die Hard‘s John McClane.
Surrogate works well enough as an action film. There are several obligatory car chases and even a helicopter stunt. These scenes mix classic action film with scifi by including superhuman surries. Thus, the major car chase in the film involves Willis’ partner on the force, played by Radha Mitchell, outrunning a pursuing car by running up the side of a building and leaping from car roof top to car roof top. When Willis crashes in the helicopter, he is inside his surrogate, and thus gets up from the wreckage and chases his “meat bag” suspect by running on top of rail cars and jumping huge distances. Neither of these chases are new in terms of technology or execution. Where the former borrows from any number of superhero films, the latter plays like a bad Terminator knock off. Several people in the audience in my theater actually laughed out loud during Mitchell’s chase scene. Though everyone seemed riveted by Willis’.
The surrogates themselves are also not new technology. Underneath the synthetic skin, the surries are no more visually advanced than the fembots of Bionic woman fame. When they are injured, they spew green lubricating fluid with the best b movie robots. It seems almost as if the creative team behind this film was doing a secret send up to any number of films in the genre. Don’t get me wrong, the film works visually and the special effects make sense. More importantly, they never take center stage as the storyline slowly dissolves in their spectacular wake; I for one am grateful to any film that realizes it is still as much about the story as the things that go boom.
Race, Gender, and Sexuality
Early in the film, we are told the disconnect between surrogate bodies and physical bodies has meant the end of racism and sexism. No one explains why this happens, but we are quickly led to believe it is because you can be anyone in a surrogate body, so people don’t transfer their isms on to surries b/c they don’t know who is in there. Not only does this seem implausible, it is neither true in the way the film is executed nor within the world of the film.
The movie begins with a back alley sex romp turned murder. Even though the target is a man, the female surrogate is also killed for being there. When the detectives arrive, the camera pans up the skirt of the dead surrogate splayed open tho fully clothed. Her literal lack of humanity is used justify the dehumanizingly sexist shot; after all she’s just a robot, so the filmmakers expect us to believe the camera staring up her skirt at her dark panties and resting on her lifeless, disfigured, body is ok b/c she was never really alive anyway. The scene is reminiscent of 80s films that took perverse pleasure in dead female bodies rather than present day films that do the same, but mask it through the lens of forensic science. There is no science here, just a dead girl with her eyes burned out and her thighs in high relief.
Actually, she is not even a woman. When the police arrive at her human host’s house, they find a grossly overweight, unkempt, balding, dead man. Despite all the layers of passing in the film, the audience is not encouraged to see the dead human host as anything other than a pervert. As the detectives discover his morbidly obese, unwashed body, the scene echoes any number of homophobic misogynist ideas about male sexuality and “deviance.” It also opens the door for a transphobic, racialized sexist, encounter in the scene that follows.
At VSI, Willis confronts an African American woman who, along with a scantily clad white woman, has introduced herself as legal counsel for the company. She has interrupted his interview several times with legal advice; Willis’ response is to question her gender, intelligence, and truthfulness. When she has prevented him from getting answers one time too many, Willis tells her as far as he knows, she is a fat man with no legal credentials whatsoever. Thus her punishment for being good at her job is to be likened to the “pervert” from the previous scene and denied her right to womanhood. The implied perversion is both gender transgression and “same sex desire” cast as failed heterosexual mimicry. No such chastisement is heaped on the white female surrogate lawyer who has also interrupted the interview to advise against answering Willis’ questions.
These moments also depend on fatphobia, which is a common trope throughout the film. Not only is the murder victim depicted as a slovenly perv but almost all of the “bad” people in the film are overweight. When they are not overweight, they are differently-abled, thus writing evil onto the body through oppressive views of difference. Its hard to take the film’s critique of body/beauty obsession seriously when its underlining message about difference is also revulsion. Unlike the intentional critique we see in Willis’ increasing discomfort with surries and his struggle with his wife, these moments reinforce normative interpretations of the body that encourage us to see difference as inherently negative.
Even the computer expert who runs all of the surveillance for the police force and helps save the human race is depicted as unclean and slightly disgusting b/c he is overweight. At one point, a surrogate even refers to him as disgusting outright. In a scene that reconfirms that the world of Surrogate is in fact still sexist, we are encouraged not to focus on a rape in progress but instead on the lack of hygiene of the computer expert who saves the rape victim while eating.
Competing with the fatphobia in this scene is misogyny. The rape scene plays out between two indestructible white male surries and their half-naked, destructible white female target. They humiliate her by calling her a “flimsy meat bag”and push her around while laughing at her complete inability to fight back b/c she is not a surrogate. And it is only when one of the assailants has her thrown down on the bed, bottom up at the camera, while the other angles himself for a “good view” that the computer expert intervenes to protect her. The white female cop watching him save her, is horrified not by the attempted rape but by the technology that allows the comp expert to cut the surrogates off from their hosts. Instead of wondering about how many rapes go on in the city, or how often humans use their surries to target humans without them which undermines any argument the film makes about an anti-oppression world, she chastises the computer programmer for interfering with the surries, claiming “that’s gotta be illegal.” And rape isn’t? In other words, the film encourages us to see the perps as violated not their potential victim.
The film is never more clear about its phobias than at the intersection of gender and weight. A throwaway role of a woman in the anti-surrogate movement is defined by obesity and filth. Like something out of a bad slasher film, her large body and wiry hair comes into relief as the “meat bags” chase Willis through their town. She “kills’ Willis’ surrogate just as he is about to capture the murderer and the look on his face of disgust is supposed to be mirrored by the audience.
The “meat bags” are all poor, with the exception of the computer tech mentioned above. While the cost of surries is never discussed in the film, the depiction of the anti-surrogate movement relies on a certain kind of rural poor whiteness that cannot be missed. In fact, the film relies on classism to otherize the “meat bags” in the eyes of the audience even as it denies any oppressions exist in this brave new world. (The fact that surrogate users look down on those who do not use & even have a name for them “meat bags” should clue you in to how new divisions are crafted on to old ones in this film.) There is no counter-narrative of class antagonism to encourage the audience to empathize with, rather than been revulsed by, the movement.
Instead, Surrogates offers us a trivial scene where Willis is offered a bunch of desensitized-generic surrogate models as a quick fix to his surrogate being destroyed. These models are offered in a discount store & are all white and plastic looking. When Willis complains he can’t feel anything inside the surrogate, he is told sensation is extra. But again, the film does not linger on this long enough for the audience or the film’s narrative to give us compelling critique of anti-surrogacy or classism. And as we will find out later, the anti-surrogate movement itself is a tool in a war between rich men.
Much more subtle, is the film’s assertion that oppression has been done away with because of the ability to pass. While it is very careful not to depict people of color living as white people, most of the surrogates of color we see in the film are actually inhabited by white men. Of the three male surrogates of color in the film, all of whom are African American, only one is definitively hosted by an African American human. He, like the lawyer discussed earlier, is corrupt and involved in the murder that is at the center of the plot. The other main African American surrogate, who runs the anti-surrogate movement, is also a hypocrite (he’s a surrogate in the anti-surrogate movement), murderer, and liar. Thus not only are most of the black people white people in reality, almost all of them are morally bankrupt and guilty; the exception is a black surrogate technician who breaks security protocols, the film doesn’t mark this except by the army captains response, to show Willis old surrogate bodies. Not only is he too dumb to know better, he also wears a name tag with his real picture, ensuring that both Willis and the audience know he is white. So again, blackness is visually mobilized by the film to symbolize ignorance, addiction, megalomania, and corruption while black subjecthood is undermined by the presence of white human hosts.
Update: It should also be noted that one of the surrogates, a bodyguard, is played by a Latino actor. He is not identified as Latino and I don’t think he is meant to be read as Latino either altho his name is Armando. This surrogate is also revealed to be hosted by a white man before the movie ends. Another throwaway role is played by a Latino surrogate who is the helicopter pilot, Lopez, who lives just long enough to welcome Willis on to the flight. Lopez is on screen for such a short period I’d forgotten about him. As far as I know, he, like the police chief, who is also dead by film’s end, is a man of color. In fact, only 1 male surrogate of color, including the bodyguard, is alive at the end of the film and he is hosted by a white man. end update.
Women fair little better in this vein. Only one of two main female characters, both white, is female hosted for the entire film. Willis’ female partner is killed midway through the film and her surrogate taken over by a man. Apparently no one pays enough attention to her to notice her surrogate has been taken over.
On the positive side, when Radha Mitchell is still inhabiting her Surrogate, she is in almost every scene for the first 1/2 of the film. Unfortunately her contribution is mostly robotic walking in high heels. She is no Bonnie Badelia. Violating the most basic tenent of cop films, she doesn’t even do her own research/investigation when Willis is suspended nor otherwise try to help him be reinstated. She honestly spends most of the movie just sitting or standing beside him and taking very little responsibility for their job. Even when she comes to the hospital, she has no connection to Willis; she doesn’t ask how he is, what happened, or what he needs her to do while he is suspended. She doesn’t even ask how it is he is being released from the hospital so quickly. All she offers is concern that he is human in a surrogate dominated world & encourage him to get a new surrie. If the film expects us to read this as the growing disconnect between human beings because of surries, it fails to provide the necessary background to her character for us to do so. More than that, Willis’ supervisor has just been to the hospital asking about his health and well being, so Mitchell’s failure to do so cannot be simply a surrogate problem, but rather a failed female character problem.
Only when Mitchell’s surrogate is inhabited by a man does she assume the appropriate and expected cop film relationship with Willis. Suddenly she cares about his suspension and his success with the case. It is also the first time she shows any interest or experience at her job. And tho it is her language and knowledge of the surrogates that tips Willis off to her surrogate being inhabited by someone else, he actually starts to grow suspicious when she has so much material to offer him.
As I already pointed out, the only black woman with lines in the film, has her gender directly insulted and called into question. She is also not a main character. Another black female surrogate, Lisa, is part of Willis’ wife’s friends, but all she does is takes drugs with the rest of the group and laugh into the camera. Her only line is to mock Willis when he catches them all partying and roll her eyes at his disgust; Willis’ wife promptly tells her to “shut up.” The final woman of color in the film, Lisa Hernandez, is essentially part of the opening credits. She provides the voice over explanation of the shift to a surrogate society as a newscaster in the background as the film opens. The writers didn’t even bother to give the character a new name, the actress is also Lisa Hernandez.
There are women in the background and in crowd shots in this movie, which is a step up. All of the women who get a few lines, except the cop chasing Willis after the car crash, are dressed provocatively, even the lawyers. While this highlights the shallowness of surrogate dependent society it also calls into question whether sexism has actually been done away with in this society. And since we are encouraged to question the gender and race of everyone we see, we have no way of knowing if these 5 second roles are male or not, but @least they aren’t on screen long enough for the film to tell us definitively that they are not women. (Oh, and the cop isn’t even credited in IMDB even tho she has lines.)
Willis’ wife is the only female main character whose female host remains unquestioningly female throughout the film. She is a pill popping chronic depressive who has literally locked herself away from the world after the death of their son. Her shallow commitments and friendships are meant to reflect the shallowness of surrogate culture and the dissolution of human connections. They also represent her willingness to drown herself in triviality to escape the real pain in her life. The pathos between her and Willis help elevate this film. He is never more convincing nor compelling when he is trying to reach out to her. Her pain, however, is never really given center stage, making her appear shallow and cowardly most of the film.
As implied, the only time homosexuality is presented in this film is when the film is insulting women or dead men. Its explicit misreading of same sex desire is off putting but fleeting. In the world of Surrogate there are no visibly queer folk because they simply switch genders. Gender and sexuality collapse into one another in a way that denies same sex desire and opens the floodgates for gender policing in the film that is decidedly transphobic when discussed.
Ultimately this film in no more offensive than the average movie. Much of what I object to here moves quickly and will likely be missed by most audience. And of course, people invested in denying oppression will likely argue that these issues are so quick that they don’t deserve attention or that they some how help build up the plot.
There is nothing really special about the special effects but they do not disappoint either. And having an actual storyline and decent actors certainly offsets the lack of wow factor.
The basic plot is interesting if sometimes convoluted by side plots. The ending raises important questions for how society functions but is not as climactic as they imagined.
For the most part, people in my theater seemed engaged by both story and action. My companion for the film, called it one of his favorites this summer, claiming it was the most well written film he’d seen in three months. Looking back on my own summer viewing, I’d have to agree. With the exception of Up, which is miles above this film, Surrogate really is among the best written films in its genre released recently. If nothing else, that bodes well for the uopcoming Fall/Christmas blockbusters.