Surrogates, based upon the comic book series of the same name, is the sort of high-concept sci-fi fireball that draws you in with numerous compelling ideas and then does nothing particularly interesting with any of them.Â Theyâ€™re mere frilly stuffs adorning the real bottom line, which is noise, violence, and hyperkinetic urban pursuits.
The film is set in the year 2017, which an intertitle announces as â€śThe Present.â€ťÂ This comes after an opening informative montage that suggests a rich opportunity for satire that this fairly humorless film immediately begins squandering.Â In the years leading up to â€śThe Present,â€ť technologies corporation VSI has mainstreamed â€śsurrogates,â€ť lifelike robots that essentially perfect the human experience: real people, like you and I, reside in pods that allow them to remotely inhabit and control their â€śsurrogates,â€ť providing all the traditional sensory stimuli associated with being human, with the additional benefit of being whoever they want to be and completely impervious to harm.Â Furthermore, since surrogates have become the majority and replaced their human operators in daily life, violent crime has seen a 99% reduction (although the opening exposition fails to explain why).
FBI Agent Greer (Bruce Willis) finds it pretty striking, then, to learn that when a pair of surrogates turns up destroyed, their human operators are later found just as dead, with their brains â€śmelted from the inside out.â€ťÂ Greer and his partner, Peters (Rahda Mitchell), begin investigating the origin of the mysterious weapon responsible for this anomaly and learn that one of the victims was the son of the former head of VSI (James Cromwell, in what feels very much like a cameo).Â Meanwhile, the weapon finds its way into â€śDread Territory,â€ť which consists of government-protected humans-only safe havens, not unlike Indian reservations, for those who refuse to surrender to the surrogacy lifestyle.Â The denizens of these surrogate-free zones are impoverished survivalists led by The Prophet, played by Ving Rhames, whose origins and motives become hazier as the film progresses.
The film is densely, albeit not convolutedly, plotted, for its 88-minute running time.Â The nature of the surrogates allows for an interesting brand of violence in which the bodily harm is more grievous (Greerâ€™s brutal assault on a surrogate who cuckolds him recalls the face-destruction-via-fire-extinguisher from Irreversible), but the stakes are lower, as the surrogates are really just tangible video game sprites.Â Consequently, when flesh-and-blood Greer is in physical danger among the surrogates, the danger is more deeply felt.
Director Jonathan Mostow stages his action scenes with more aplomb than can be found, say, in the unwatchably rapid-fire slideshows of things happening in the recent Terminator Salvation, and the film does have a clean look, but where Mostow excels in action he fails just about everywhere else.Â If the film looks clean, it also looks too slickâ€”when some unnecessary oblique angle isnâ€™t being used, the camera is constantly moving.Â Such over-direction of the filmâ€™s visual aspects smacks of narrative insecurity, and in the case of Surrogates, such insecurity is well-founded, as the filmâ€™s handling of dramatic situationsâ€”specifically, the cornball domestic drama between Greer and his wife, and the grief of Cromwellâ€™s character over his sonâ€™s deathâ€”is tone-deaf, limp, and about as inorganic as the surrogates themselves.Â Reaction shots reveal screen test-caliber mugging, clichĂ©s such as â€śGive me your badge and your gunâ€ť arenâ€™t mitigated by any kind of creative license, and key lines of dramatic dialogue (â€śOh my God.Â If it was me they were after, Iâ€™m responsible for my sonâ€™s deathâ€ť) sound like they belong in speech bubbles.
The look of the surrogates themselves is unsettling, as they resemble something like a cross between the animated characters from The Polar Express and department store mannequins.Â Greerâ€™s surrogate looks like a Madame Tussaudâ€™s version of Bruce Willis circa Moonlighting.Â When Greerâ€™s â€śmeatbagâ€ť human self is out and about, he hobbles, hunches, and generally has difficulty moving around.Â For once, and refreshingly, Willis looks his age.Â Heâ€™s not fit.Â In fact, when we first see Greerâ€™s human form at rest in his pod, we donâ€™t even recognize him as Bruce Willis; a portly, bald middle-aged victim from a few scenes prior is seen in the same general setup as Willis, therefore homogenizing the two.
Such notions about being free from the confines of infirmity, old age, gender, disability, etc, by way of cerebral cortex â€śjacking inâ€ť technology have been explored before, however, and more compellingly in films like Until the End of the World, Strange Days, and eXistenZ, all made over a decade ago (although all by filmmakers with greater aims than Mostow).Â Surrogates, then, feels a little conceptually dated in light of its having nothing newâ€”or much anything at allâ€”to say about its conceits. Furthermore, more recent works in this genre such as Children of Men and District 9 illustrate that a sci-fi actioner can retain the integrity of its ideas, emotional resonance, and even satire without compromising the punch of its action.Â Bruce Willisâ€™ presence and his dual selves, too, elicited fond thoughts of 12 Monkeys, another film by which Surrogates suffers in comparison.Â And at fourteen years of age, itâ€™s considerably less dated than Surrogates, which is stale right out of the package.