Imagine a world where you could sit on your arse all day in the comfort of your own home and get others to do your work for you. Sounds great doesn’t it? In fact you could argue that those living on benefits in this country currently enjoy this luxury (ooh, little bit of politics there). But what about your self esteem, social skills and self-improvement? Surely everyone would just end up in their pants, eating crisps looking like Elvis circa 1977?
Johnathan Mostow envisions this dystopian future in the surprisingly cerebral sci-fi actioner Surrogates. Comfort and security come at a price and the price is having to shag your robot wife until, spiritually your soul becomes a circuit board.
In the future people don’t go out in the real world. They sit at home in special pods and remotely control high-tech cybernetic robots or “surrogates“ who live out their lives vicariously so they can concentrate on staying at home and watching porn. The slogan is:
The future isn’t particularly dangerous, in fact crime is virtually non-existent, but there is no underestimating mankind’s desire to do as little as possible. First came the remote control and now this.
Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) is one such sluggard. As an FBI agent he has to investigate the deaths of two people who die when their surrogates are destroyed (something that normally would be impossible). His investigation draws him into the anti-surrogate movement whose leader The Prophet (a virtually unrecognisable Ving Rhames in Bob Marley/Martin Luther King mode) wants to wipe out surrogacy and get the world back to the basics of growing your own carrots and washing once a month.
Willis is in a police chopper tracking a suspect, Miles Strickland (Jack Noseworthy), close to one of the Dredd Reservations (self-policed surrogate-free zones). The police on the ground corner the suspect down an alley not knowing he has on his possession an “O.D.” a developmental weapon with the ability to kill people through their surrogates. After wiping out the police Strickland unleashes the weapon on the chopper which overloads the pilot’s circuits blowing its eyes out.
The out of control chopper spins wildly for what seems like an eternity, clips the top of a building before crashing down and flipping over like a child’s toy.
Whilst you have to appreciate Mostow’s dragging out the suspense for as long as possible there was only one way the helicopter was going with the pilot out for the count; and that was down.
The crash itself looks surprisingly cheap and CGI’d compared to some of his previous efforts and the washed out yellows look like something I would expect to see on the Amiga game Persian Gulf Inferno.
Exploding helicopter innovation
Do passengers survive?
Survive is perhaps not the most apt verb here as everyone is a robot. The chopper pilot does not resurface from the fireball but Willis calmly escapes with his arm torn off seeping some sort of green fluid which may or may not be absinthe.
I found this film to be an unexpected pleasure in a genre dominated by studios that dumb things down to the point of no intellectual returns. Reprising the team behind Terminator 3 writers Michael Ferris, John Brancato along with director Mostow create a fully realised, plausible universe with great touches such as robots “jacking” with electronic “drugs”, beauty salons that resemble garages and roadside surrogate battery chargers.
Willis is not his usual bullet proof self and shows pleasing levels of vulnerability when dealing with some of the movies more existential themes. His flawed relationship with his wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike) elevates the film above the standard sci-fi action fare that normally relies on fancy effects and a blue tint for its authenticity.
The fact that in this fantasy world everyone has flawlessly beautiful surrogates to hide the fact that in the real world they are so ugly they couldn’t get a date from a calendar is a concept anyone familiar with Second Life will well appreciate.
The same way you can never really be sure that 18yr old underwear model you are talking to in a chat room is not a 44yr old truck driver from Burnley no surrogate owner is quite what they seem in the real world. Mostow keeps the action moving ensuring the film never outstays its welcome.
As with most sci-fi you can pick holes in the minutiae until the cows come home. Why have coffee shops for robots that don’t need to drink coffee? Don’t be a smart arse, its called artistic licence.
I won’t spoil it for you but the dénouement is a little far fetched to appear plausible for such a massive company with undoubtedly hundreds of fail safes to prevent their units from malfunctioning on a monumental scale.
(Willis questioning an attractive female surrogate lawyer)
Female Lawyer: Agent Greer, we're not doctors.
Tom Greer: Honey, I don't know what you are. I mean, for all I know, you could be some big, fat dude sitting in his arm chair with his dick hanging out.
Disney took the odd step of not holding any press screenings for Surrogates. This is normally the sign for a studio in “damage limitation mode” with an absolute turkey on their hands that they don’t want universally panned even before it’s had a chance to see the light of day.
Subsequent reviews have been “mixed” but Disney’s failure to back a sci-fi film with brains does the film and the movie industry in general a disservice.
Some middle aged men assuage their impending mortality by buying a red convertible and driving to the south of France whilst others suck in their gut and misguidedly try chatting up the office temp. Richard Hawley deals with his existential mid-life crisis by (for the most part) ditching the glitter-ball torch songs that made him the critic’s darling and whacking up the dials to 11. Many of tonight's Brightonians expecting a cosy evening of balladry get an abrupt shock as Hawley showcases much of his new album Standing At The Sky's Edge in all its bombastic glory. Hawley's opening salvo is:
"Right! Lets have it."
I detect a strong Doors influence in the defiantly loud psychedelia of the album's title track. Its sets the tone for much of the new material which is strong on swampy bass, wailing guitars and walls of feedback. It's certainly not the sort of album you can play at bedtime.
I don't know what it is about the Sheffield water but it has strong "banter" properties. Jarvis Cocker, Alex Turner and Richard Hawley are all known as much for their bon mots as they are for their music.
"Did you know Kate Middleton is an anagram of Naked Tit Model?"
Hawley tells us apropos of nothing.
You don't get too many songs about flying kites but Don't Stare At The Sun blends Hawley's mellow baritone with a solo that echoes John Barry's Theme from the Ipcress File. It starts at a funeral pace before bursting into a crescendo of noise like a cosmic firework.
As if realising that he is danger of scaring off all the oldies Hawley dials it down a notch and plays a few of what I like to call "swayers". Hotel Room shows there is a marked difference between his old material and the new stuff. Without any sense of irony the couples in the audience start to lovingly embrace despite Hawley notifying them that the song is about the bleak subject of addiction.
Hawley explains that Tonight The Streets Are Ours Song was requested by reclusive artist Banksy for use on his film Exit Through The Gift Shop. Hawley thought it was Pulp drummer Nick Banks winding him up and told him to fuck off. It sounds a lot less lush than it does on record but that is to be expected.
Seek It bucks the trend for psychedelia on the new album and is resolutely old school Hawley with it rolling melody and tongue in cheek lyrics.
"I got a dream and you were in it
We got naked and can't remember what happened next
It was weird."
During Soldier On we are treated to a bit of lap steel courtesy of long time friend and collaborator Shez Sheridan. You can hear a pin drop in the church of Hawley until the atmosphere is suddenly shattered as his Gretsch obliterates the calm with a coruscating wall of noise. I have never seen a performer change guitars as often as Richard as he literally has the guitar tech running on between every song. Even Prince would think it extravagant.
Leave Your Body Behind You sounds like Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds with king sized riffs and a trippy baseline. It is the rockiest I have ever heard him sound and its life-affirming stuff
"Before you leave let me tell you guys are fucking better than Portsmouth."
The main set is finished off with a reverb packed Down In The Woods which sounds like it could have been written in 1969. Corrosive waves of feedback drown the audience and to be honest it drags on too long. There is only so much soloing a man can take.
After a brief encore Hawley digs out his familiar late father's orange Gretch Nashville 1963 also known as "his baby" for a run through of Lady Solitude which placates all the swayers with ear ache. Requests for the best pub in Brighton are met with chorus of choices which suggest there are many alcoholics in the audience.
Hawley aptly ends with a widescreen version of The Ocean. These slow burning ballads are his bread and butter and he does them with panache. The audience leave happy perhaps inspired to dig out those Pink Floyd albums they bought first time round.
This week the US embassy in Benghazi was stormed by protestors who killed US ambassador Christopher Stevens along with 3 bodyguards in a hail of rocket fire. In Cairo the US embassy was breached with protestors ripping down the American flag whilst in the Yemen there were violent clashes between security forces and protestors attempting to break into the embassy. The fact that the US helped liberate Libya and Egypt is perhaps and salient detail overlooked by the killers and those on streets demanding the expulsion of US diplomats.
Even more baffling are attacks on the UK and German embassies in Sudan perhaps by idiots who aren't that clued up on their geography. Last time I looked England and Germany weren't US states. This goes some way to underlining the mindless nature of the violence. Muslims seemingly ant to attack anything remotely western.
I can understand that no one likes to have their beliefs mocked but where is the sense of proportionality. Most right thinking people would consider the concept of "an eye for an eye" pretty medieval in approach in a 21st century society but Muslims even seem to want to always go one step further. I could dismiss the violence as extremism if it was just perpetrated by a few nutters but this backlash is widespread.
Before I am accused of tarring all Muslims with the same brush I appreciate there are a vast proportion of moderate Muslims who are able to handle challenges to their faith with considered and sensible responses. However there seems to be vast tracts of the Islamic world that completely overreact whenever a satirical cartoon or a grainy film clip is aired that pokes fun or questions their principles.
It doesn't help tensions when the writer and director of the controversial film in question, Innocence of Muslims is reported to be Jewish film agent Sam Bacile. This just rubs Semitic salt into Islamic wounds.
I have watched the offending YouTube clip and to be honest it looks like a cross between a childrens nativity play and amateur dramatic production of Life of Brian. The only thing shocking about the content is the acting (Islam expressly prohibited any depictions of the Prophet Muhammad), It is poorly made, badly acted and would be dismissed by anyone in the western world as nothing more than the work of 6th formers with too much time on their hands.
It seems someone with an agenda has managed to engineer a level of exposure the film never would have achieved by dubbing a clip into Arabic and circulated in the part of the world were it is going to cause maximum offense. Director Bacile may have just thought this a cunning marketing ploy but it seems to have backfired rather spectacularly.
Of course this behaviour is idiotic and the last thing the world needs right now is more religious hatred. However I have to question the hair trigger behaviour by those in the Arab world who don't have the sense to dismiss these things outright and carry on their worship without burning or killing anything that doesn't meet their Islamic agenda. As religions go Islam can hardly call itself progressive.
Hollywood fosters such a creativity vacuum that even innovators such as Christopher Nolan succumb to the weight of its lowest common denominator expectations. Here in the Dark Knight Rises Nolan serves up the bloated conclusion to his gritty Batman reboot that sadly feels like a misfiring attempt at tying up the trilogy’s loose ends by burying them in a morass of a plot and hoping the audience will be distracted by Bale’s grating Barry White impersonation.
Batman (Christian Bale) is now a Howard Hughesesque recluse having retired from the crime fighting game following the death of Harvey Dent and the misguided backlash from Gotham’s citizens. He cuts a pitiful figure as he mopes about Wayne Mansions eating Coco Pops in his pyjamas.
He is awakened from his reverie by muscle bound psychopath Bane (Tom Hardy) who in traditional comic book fashion has inexplicable urges to blow up Gotham City perhaps to make for his steroidally shrunken genitalia. Bane steals one of Wayne Enterprises very own fusion reactors and holds the city to ransom and of course only one man can save them. Cue much chop-socky action, car chases and close ups of Anne Hathaway’s PVC covered derriere.
There are attempts to inject a meaningful credit-crunch zeitgeist into the carnage-strewn plot with Bane’s socialist masses rising up to crush their bourgeois oppressors in a sub Occupy Gotham angle but it all feels like an excuse to try and give the numerous fight scenes a worthy edge.
However, just as Gotham is about to be reduced to rubble, in one last selfless act, Batman hooks the nuclear bomb by cable to the underside of his one-of-a-kind Batcopter (a design inspired by crossing a V-22 Osprey and an AH 64 Apache) and rushes from Gotham and out to sea. As the timer ticks down Batman gets further away from Gotham’s civilians and when he is a speck on the horizon the foreground is filled with a familiar mushroom cloud and its good night Vienna.
There is no massive explosion, no aftershock, no carnage, just a nominal puff of white smoke in the distance. The destruction of this helicopter and the hero within could have been the mother of all fireballs yet we are left with almost a peaceful Zen-like chopper destruction. This scene is completely at odds with the ethos here at Exploding Helicopter HQ but in a perverse way you have to admire Nolan’s restraint and avoidance of cliché.
Exploding helicopter innovation
A helicopter killed by nuclear explosion. Seen it before but perhaps not like this.
Do passengers survive?
That would be telling wouldn’t it but there are some clues towards the end that indicate there is more cash left in the cow yet. For God sake let the man die a dignified death.
As you would expect from a meganormous action blockbuster there are some adrenalin pumping set pieces such as the opening mid air hijacking which are delivered with Nolan’s customary directorial panache. The last five minutes of the film almost redeem Nolan’s reputation as the plotline twister par-excellence but by this point you may have probably slipped into a coma.
Despite a $300 million budget and a raft off top notch actors you may have gathered that I was left feeling severely underwhelmed by this film. For a start it is way too long, humourless and contains some of the most implausible behaviour since Bean: The Movie.
For instance Bane instead of stealing the bomb and detonating it immediately decides it will be more practical to just meaninglessly drive it round the city in the back of a transit van giving the good guys plenty of time to track it down before detonation. Also to help the good guys there is a handy red LED timer on the bomb conveniently informing the world of the time until its impending combustion. Do they make these things at Argos?
Anne Hathaway is no Michelle Pfeiffer and really should be sticking to The Devil Wears Prada fluff leaving challenging roles to real actress who are able to do more than just look good in a cat suit. Why Batman trusts her despite being repeatedly double crossed can only be attributed to either deep seated mental illness or the overwhelming urge to get into her pants.
Tom Hardy is a great actor but tragically wasted playing the one dimensional Bane in a mask that covers his face forcing him to act only with his eyes (I acknowledge Roger Moore did make a career out of similar restrictions). His voice is also overdubbed in post-production so really they could have just hired Ross Kemp and saved a few quid.
Lucius Fox (on Batman’s one-of-a-kind helicopter): Nothing like a little air superiority
Nolan said that each of the Batman films have a central theme underpinning the story. For Batman Begins it was "Fear", The Dark Knight deals with "Chaos" and this film's overarching emotion is "Pain". After three hours trying to make sense of the mush with a surly 11yr old absent mindedly kicking the back of your chair you will certainly agree that he is director who delivers on his promises.