‘Surrogates’ movie review: Bruce Willis is an avatar in engaging sci-fi thriller

There’s a pretty good idea at the heart of Jonathan Mostow’s Surrogates: instead of living your own life, what if you could control a lifelike robot to live it for you, from the comfort of your own home? 

No need to work out, undergo expensive cosmetic surgery, or take care of your physical appearance; all interaction, from work to social life, can be done with a human-like robot avatar (here termed ‘surrogate’).

In the movie, this results in a society populated by shut-ins who operate the human-like model-perfect beings that roam the streets. It’s an interesting, if unlikely, premise; one would hope that humanity wouldn’t devolve to this state, especially in what appears to be the very near future. 

Nevertheless, there’s a wealth of good material to be mined here: how are children raised in this society (or even conceived)? What about romance, marriage? Are sports now played out video-game style, with remote operators controlling perfect robotic athletes?

This material is (mostly) left unmined, though there is some good commentary about the state of warfare under these conditions – a state that doesn’t seem all that unfamiliar. What’s unfortunate about Surrogates is that it wraps this smart sci-fi premise inside a routine (read: dumb) thriller plot. Luckily, director Mostow (Breakdown) is one of the better dumb thriller directors around; though Surrogates doesn’t live up to its potential, it still entertains.

Bruce Willis stars as cop Tom Greer, who with partner Jennifer Peters (Radha Mitchell) is investigating a unique homicide – two surrogates were murdered, somehow killing their operators in the process, in the old Matrix/Nightmare on Elm Street fashion. 

But that’s not supposed to happen; not only shouldn’t damage done to a surrogate affect a human operator, but the film would lead you to believe that this technology has all but eliminated crime. Logically, the opposite would seem to be true, as people could lead their surrogates with wild abandon into any number of sins, but I digress.

As it turns out, one of the victims of the double homicide is the son of wealthy recluse Lionel Canter (James Cromwell), the founder of the surrogate technology. Canter suspects that he was the target, after a public falling out with the mega-corporation he helped to build; Greer and Peters track a human ‘meatbag’ suspect to an outcast of ‘Dreads’, humans who reject the surrogate-laden society. 

This leads to a confrontation with Dread leader The Prophet (Ving Rhames). Meanwhile, Greer’s wife (Rosamund Pike) has lost herself in surrogate un-reality after the death of their son.

Willis, Mitchell, and the other actors play their roles as both humans and their airbrushed, waxy-looking robot doppelgangers; this is good for a few chuckles, particularly in Willis’ case – he hasn’t looked as goofy since Death Becomes Her

At times, the film verges on the loopy, like a scene ripped from an episode of Futurama where a group of surrogates ‘jack on’ using electrical current through a bong-like device. It’s hard to imagine the filmmakers taking scenes like this seriously.

But despite the isolated silliness – and the feeling that the film is often teetering on the edge of becoming an Idiocracy-like futuristic parody – Surrogates is just serious enough to pay off as intended. 

While the film completely lacks the kind of visionary portrait of future society an Alex Proyas or a Ridley Scott might have brought, credit goes to the director for turning in a tight, entertaining thriller. Mostow delivered one of the best B-movie suspensers in the past 20 years in Breakdown, and he’s turned conceptually flawed scripts (U-571, Terminator 3) into better movies than they had a right to be. Here’s another to add to his resume.

Screenplay is by Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato, whose high points have been the past two Terminator films; this one’s about a shade below those. The film is based on a graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, but you’d never guess it from the lack of a unified vision here.

The premise of Surrogates is vaguely similar to the one in the recent Gamer; both feel like they’ve been churned out to beat James Cameron’s Avatar to the punch. Also see: I, Robot, which has some surface similarities and a nearly identical role for Cromwell.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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