Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 11:30 pm on October 8, 2009

Surrogates poster

Status: In theaters (opened 9/25/09)
Directed By: Jonathan Mostow
Written By: Michael Ferris & John D. Brancato
Cinematographer: Oliver Wood
Starring: Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, Boris Kodjoe, Ving Rhames

Imagine the concept of Second Life taken to its logical conclusion, and you’ll be well on your way to picturing the world in which Surrogates takes place. Rather than controlling virtual avatars from their computer chairs, though, the people in this world hook into a full-body experience and control robotic facsimiles of themselves, saving themselves the trouble (and avoiding the myriad dangers) of venturing out into the real world. The opening credits sequence whisks us through the scientific and business developments that led to this point, quickly bringing us up to speed on what life in the world of Surrogates is like.

It seems all science fiction is derivative to one extent or another, combining ideas from works that have come before while introducing and exploring new ones, and Surrogates is somewhat of an extreme example of this. It’s part The Matrix, part Minority Report, part Strange Days, but it doesn’t compare terribly favorably to any of these, all of which exhibit a stronger, more focused vision than what’s on display here. That’s not to say that Surrogates is bad, necessarily, but the concepts and philosophical ideas it borrows from these previous entries in the genre are presented in more watered-down fashion. There are some interesting aspects to the philosophy of Surrogates, but none of them feel fully fleshed out. The state of the world in this movie is more used as the backdrop for a typical action-thriller, rather than as the basis for philosophical ruminations like it is in those other movies (though they each manage to include a good amount of action, too).

Where Surrogates really impresses is in its art direction and makeup design. As the world of the film is being set up, it feels like it’d be easy to become confused about when you’re watching a character in the flesh (“meatbags,” they’re called) and when you’re watching their surrogates, but this is never the case. Real people in this movie are wrinkly, scraggly, old, even kind of dirty. Their surrogates are younger, more attractive versions of themselves, with perfect skin and hair. The capabilities of the cast add significantly to this clarity, of course. This is a role that Bruce Willis handles with ease, going from the shaggy, pudgy, unkempt appearance of his character, which he plays in a manner reminiscent of his role in 12 Monkeys, to the polished look of his FBI-agent surrogate, clean-shaven, square-jawed, and sporting a well-kept toupee. His character’s wife (Rosamund Pike) exhibits similar extremes, with equally effective results.

An important aspect of any movie like this—and, indeed, a lot of the fun of getting into its story—comes from the rules at work in its world and how it brings its audience up to speed on them. Surrogates handles this well for the most part, with two annoying but significant exceptions. Its characters recite forced expository dialogue at times that feels too transparent in its aim—one FBI agent (Radha Mitchell) tells her partner, “You can’t go in there, we don’t have jurisdiction due to such-and-such a law,” for instance. A greater sin, though, is when it sets up specific rules and then breaks them; we are told throughout the first half of the film that surrogates can’t just be used by anybody, they have to be tuned to an individual operator’s neural patterns. Later in the film, though, this rule is overlooked when it suits the narrative’s purpose.

The screenplay was written by Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato, the writing team behind Terminator 3 and Terminator Salvation. Here they’ve adapted a comic series, and in having free reign to tell a self-contained story (rather than trying to fit into the canon of a previously-existing franchise), they are somewhat more successful. I really found the design of this film, along with Jonathan Mostow’s tasteful direction, to be the main draws, with the story itself taking a back seat. Its ending tries for a larger social statement than what the film feels like it’s working towards, but with surprisingly decent results. It’s another echo of Minority Report, with some Watchmen thrown in too, and while it’s not as resonant as those movies, it’s still satisfying enough in its own right.

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Posted by mike in Predictions,Sports at 8:20 pm on October 6, 2009

Fan Stats
Last year, I claimed that I watch about 130 Cubs games a year, and listen to another 25 or so. After writing that, I got curious as to what the actual numbers were, so this past season, I kept track. I present here, then, my personal “fan stats” for the 2009 season. Of the 161 games my team played, I followed 143 of them (for a “fan rate” of 89%, a bit less than the 95% I’d estimated last year—though, I think somewhat understandably, I was more interested in the team last year than I was this year). The breakdown of the games I followed goes like this:

  • I watched 116 games on TV, most thanks to the MLB Extra Innings package
  • I listened to 20 games on XM radio, either at work, at home, or in the car
  • For 2 games, I watched half on TV and listened to the other half in the car on XM
  • I listened to 2 games on AM radio while driving between Chicago and Champaign
  • I attended 3 games: one in Chicago, and two in San Francisco

And the games I missed can be summed up like so:

  • I missed 8 games due to the Fox Saturday monopoly on baseball and the resultant blackouts (this number would’ve been higher, but I sometimes listen on XM on Saturdays while working on something around the house)
  • I missed 5 games due to being on vacation, traveling, etc (including one on my wedding day—although I was able to catch a couple of innings backstage before the big event got underway)
  • I missed 2 games because my DirecTV DVR randomly screwed up recording them, for no apparent reason
  • I missed 3 games towards the end of the season, when the Cubs were eliminated from playoff contention, out of sheer indifference

I don’t know if anybody besides me finds this interesting or not, but I’d love to hear similar “stats” from other fans. If you’re a baseball fan, consider keeping track of how you follow your team for the 2010 season—I’d love for you to share the results with me here at the end of next season. (I just kept a text file in my home directory, and added a line for each game; the summaries above are then easily obtained by using grep.)

Regular Season Reflections
My pre-season predictions were quite a ways off the mark this year. I went out on a limb where I shouldn’t have, and didn’t stick with what I should’ve known in too many cases. I only picked 2 correct playoff teams in the AL, and 1 in the NL. Here’s a brief division-by-division summary of how the season went:

  • NL West: I had the Dodgers picked to win the division, and they did. I also correctly picked the NL Wild Card to come out of this division, and the Giants almost proved that you can do that with pitching alone, but not quite. Instead it was the Rockies who took the last NL playoff spot (and they actually contended for the division title, but finished 3 games behind LA).
  • NL Central: My “third time’s a charm” mentality for the Cubs didn’t pan out, as their off-season moves proved to be as damaging as they could’ve been. The Cardinals led the division for most of the year, with the Cubs only briefly sniffing at first place before trailing off quietly.
  • NL East: I was probably more wrong about the Mets than any other team, who were mostly out of it right from the start. The Phillies rode the momentum of their World Series win from last year for another strong season. I also underestimated the Marlins, who ended up being somewhat involved in the Wild Card race.
  • AL West: I couldn’t have been more wrong about the Angels, who cruised to another division title. The Rangers did, as predicted, make a push, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
  • AL Central: The White Sox were never truly in the race, instead giving way to the Twins and Tigers to play a 163rd game to decide the division (the second year in a row for the Twins, this time with better results).
  • AL East: While I had the Yankees taking the Wild Card, I completely underestimated their ability to rebound from a thoroughly disappointing season last year. Instead they were the best team in baseball, winning 103 games and walking away with the division. The Red Sox did take the Wild Card.

I suppose the one thing to hang my hat on was picking the two divisions that the Wild Cards came out of, meaning my judgment of the 6 MLB divisions as a whole wasn’t very far off, even if my appraisal of the individual teams proved to be less than accurate.

Playoff Predictions
I said before the season started that I thought it’d be the Dodgers over the Red Sox in the World Series, and while that still remains a possibility, I’m not so sure how likely it is. Here are my picks for the round-by-round playoff matchups:

  • NLDS: Colorado Rockies vs. Philadelphia Phillies
    The Rockies finished the season strong, but the Phillies are more experienced and have the home-field advantage. I think it’ll be a close series, but the Phillies will take it in 5.
  • NLDS: St. Louis Cardinals vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
    The Dodgers really seem to have backed their way into the playoffs, while the Cardinals have only been looking stronger and stronger the second half of the season. I think they’ll win it in 4.
  • ALDS: Minnesota Twins vs. New York Yankees
    The Twins are likely happy just to have snuck into the postseason, but I think they’ll have enough momentum to win a game and avoid the sweep. The Yankees are just too strong all around, though, and they’ll win it in 4.
  • ALDS: Boston Red Sox vs. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
    Is this the year the Angels finally get past the Red Sox in the playoffs? Don’t count on it. I think it’ll be yet another sweep.
  • NLCS: Philadelphia Phillies vs. St. Louis Cardinals
    The Phillies had a great run last postseason, but the Cardinals are a team you can never count out in October—I’m just not sure if it’s because of, or despite Tony La Russa. Either way, I think they take the series in 6.
  • ALCS: Boston Red Sox vs. New York Yankees
    In this familiar match-up, I think the age of the Red Sox will give way to the new-look mix of youthful talent and proven veterans that the Yankees field. It wouldn’t be baseball if a Sox-Yankees series didn’t go the distance, though, so I’m predicting it to take all 7.
  • World Series: St. Louis Cardinals vs. New York Yankees
    The Yankees have been the dominant team in baseball all season, and with their pitching staff, well-rounded lineup, and home-field advantage, I think they’ll ride it all the way to a championship. The Cardinals will put up a bit of a fight, but not enough to get past game 5.

If the above predictions hold true, I won’t be watching very closely. That’s pretty much a summary of how I’ve felt about the whole 2009 season, though, so it’d only be appropriate.

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