Greetings, Maniacs, and welcome to another rip-roaring No-Fly Zone. This week’s piece again shows that Hollywood has taken an interest in non-superhero comics—for better or worse, depending on your point of view. A couple of weeks ago, Whiteout hit theaters. Last Friday, The Surrogates landed. Back in 2005, Comicscape conducted an interview with writer Robert Venditti about his new comic series. It was his first effort, and it garnered immediate critical acclaim. It’s a damn good book, and well worth reading. Jonathan Mostow’s film mostly follows the graphic novel, with some changes. Though it definitely turns up the adrenaline, it’s a relatively—stress that—faithful adaptation of the comic. Mostow hasn’t really directed since Terminator 3. The Surrogates brings him into familiar territory, what with the robots and all.
Most of the changes between the graphic novel and the film are window dressing. If you summarized the two in a single paragraph, they come off about the same. This isn’t a Watchmen or Sin City level of faithfulness by any means, but it probably won’t upset any of the book’s fans. The premise and conclusion are essentially the same, with a few notable changes. Bruce Willis’s portrayal of Greer—Harv in the comic, Tom in the film—lends a bit of action-hero grit to the film that the comic lacked. He’s a police detective in the comic, and an FBI agent in the film. In Venditti’s graphic novel, the real Greer is overweight and cuts a sad figure. In appearance, he reminds the reader of Dennis Franz in NYPD Blue. Bruce Willis, on the other hand, brings more aging action hero grit to the character. He channels his John McClane from Die Hard, minus the biting sense of humor. Then again, any hero Willis plays will inevitably draw comparison, so maybe that isn’t fair. The film also ups the stakes on the “murders” that open the graphic novel. In the comic, the “killer”—dubbed Steeplejack—only disables Surrogates, with no harm to their owners. In the film, the substituted character is a member of a radical anti-Surrogates separatist group led by the enigmatic Prophet. When he zaps Surrogates, their owners die as well. He’s also tied to a much more complicated conspiracy than in the comic. Arguably a more compelling threat, it raises the stakes from what amounts to property damage to actual murder. The film’s premise shifts from the comics, in that it emphasizes a MacGuffin over a manhunt. The weapon used to kill Surrogates and their owners becomes more of an issue. And, the ultimate goal of the man behind the killings—or disablings, in the comic—moves from simply wanting man to live authentically again to trying to wipe out everyone vain enough to use a Surrogate.
In that regard, the essential message of the comic remains in tact—much like the world in The Matrix, virtual living may seem fun, but it’s still not real. The idea of the real—warts and all—standing superior to the simulated remains. The film’s take is much more cut and dry—Surrogates bad, real life good—whereas the graphic novel seriously examines the benefits of the idea in more detail. After all, Surrogacy all but eliminates violent crime, disease, and much of the world’s other ills. In the May 29th edition of the NFZ, we wrote about The Surrogates, stating: “Venditti never defaults to moralizing about the evils of technology with a simple please to live authentically. The Prophet despises Surrogates, but he does so out of religious fanaticism and not from a sense of humanism. And, though Lt. Greer even has issues with the replacement robots, his job forces him to pursue SteepleJack—one who seeks to dismantle the Surrogates, but does so without regards for the wishes of individual users.” The graphic novel takes a much more hands-off approach to the idea, leaving the reader with more room to consider the idea. The idea of Surrogacy stands as a logical extension of online identities expressed now in MMORPGs and social networking, in which users can recreate themselves. One can argue that the comic eventually concedes that near-total displacement of the self is a bit scary, but it never insists too hard. Greer pursues Steeplejack, even though he has his own issues with Surrogates—even abandoning his own after it sustains damage. But in the end, if someone wants to live life online—and, by extension, through a Surrogate—it is the user’s decision.
In the film, Greer prevents the death of any actual users, but allows the world’s Surrogates to fry in one fell swoop. The comic takes the decision out of his hands, but leaves him somewhat contented with the result. By making the decision his, the film gives more force to its message. It also simplifies it a bit. Whether that makes it better or worse than the comic really depends on the viewer. The comic takes a more nuanced approach, but the idea of virtual living elicits pretty strong reactions on both sides. Some people think it’s great, while others see it as the beginning of the end. But, we live in an age where we often replace real interaction with the virtual. Getting together in person and all the entails has worked for several thousand years now, and one wonders if it really needs improvement. Maybe a forceful reaction isn’t such a bad thing.
Brett Weldele’s visual style isn’t present in Mostow’s film in the least. The Surrogates is drawn in a stark, sketchy style with few colors on each page. It’s a very rough look and may not be to every reader’s taste. But, like Ben Templesmith’s work on 30 Days of Night, Weldele’s art is utterly unique and unforgettable. Unfortunately, the film makes no effort to carry that over. Rather, it takes the premise and Venditti’s script and plays it straight. Thus, the film looks like so many futuristic sci-fi action movies. Shades of Mostow’s Terminator 3 peak out from time to time, especially during a chase scene between Greer’s Surrogate and the killer into a humans-only compound. Mostow takes the idea of an unstoppable killing machine and kind of reverses it, with Greer’s robot as the protagonist. Missing an arm and with several gunshots, his mutilated form keeps coming at the terrified fugitive. It’s odd to see The Surrogates pay tribute to Terminator 3, which was itself less of a sequel and more of a big tribute to the first two films.
Despite mixed critical reactions to the film, The Surrogates is actually a pretty worthwhile sci-fi action flick. It shifts a few plot elements from the comic around, but to no great detriment. The role of the Prophet is altered a bit. The man ultimately responsible for the murders—or in the comic, disabling—is made a bit more active and megalomaniacal, with a story element involving his son that opens the film. Greer is much more of a badass. Mostow’s visual style isn’t particularly unique, but it gets the job done with a script working from a solid source. Putting the two side by side, the comic is probably the superior effort, if only for Weldele’s stark visuals. But, the film’s pretty good and worth a look.
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Kurt Amacker is the writer of The No-Fly Zone, Mania’s weekly alternative comics column. He is also the author of the comic miniseries Dead Souls, published by Seraphemera Books. Dead Souls is available from the Seraphemera Books website, Amazon.com, and at comic shops everywhere. He can be reached at email@example.com.