Trade in video gaming for mind control and human avatars for robots and "Surrogates" is alarmingly similar to the recent "Gamer
," an ugly, snarky action film without a heart or a brain. By comparison, "Surrogates" actually explores some provocative themes and bears intermittent signs of intelligence. The front-and-center murder-mystery plot demands attention be paid in order to follow the occasionally complex narrative, but more fascinating are its timely underlying messages about emotional disconnection in a technological world and physical obsession in a youth-driven society.
In an alternate vision of present-day earth, people are given the option to mentally navigate their outside lives through a synthetic, usually younger or more attractive copy of themselves, all the while never having to leave the comfort of their own homes. It is a controversial topic, but, ethically questionable though it may be, the fad catches on and crime drops to an all-time low. When a series of synth assassinations rock the city of Boston, the surrogates' deaths causing the unheard-of demise of their human controllers, FBI agents Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) and Jennifer Peters (Radha Mitchell) are hot on the case. Their investigation ultimately leads them to fired chairman of Virtual Self Industries Lionel Canter (James Cromwell), whose own college-aged son has become one of the victims, and later to a radicalized group against the non-human movement led by Prophet (Ving Rhames).
Based on the graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, "Surrogates" is cold, antiseptic and stiltedand would be a total failure if it weren't. Making the bold choice to set the futuristic story in modern times, director Jonathan Mostow (2003's "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
") wholly commits to the notion of a world physically run by robots. Take away the sci-fi element, and his point about our increasing reliance on electronic communication over face-to-face human contact remains intact. The middle-aged, balding Tom can go to work under the guise of his smooth-skinned surrogate, over twenty years younger than he, and he can carry on a relationship with stunning, equally youthful surrogate wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike), but there's something missing. Tom knows it, and senses all the more how tragically impersonal the planet has gotten after his surrogate is ruined and he must go outside himself for the first time in years. On the other hand, Maggie is not so willing to give up her synth, hiding behind a false facade of unobtainable calm and beauty as a coping mechanism in dealing with the loss of their child.
The visual effects used to drop the actors' ages and plasticize them when playing the surrogates is astonishing. Seeing Bruce Willis (2007's "Live Free or Die Hard
") looking barely thirty years old and with a full head of hair is disconcerting, and the artistry used to achieve this feat is worth a heap of accolades. Because the viewer believes the non-living synths, their body movements and interactions off-kilter just enough to further buy into them, the film proves all the more shattering when it is depicting what a human loses by not facing the highs and lows of life firsthand. Bruce Willis is understated as Tom Greer, his return to self-actualization more enthralling than the thriller aspect of the story. As wife Maggie, Rosamund Pike (2007's "Fracture
") impresses with the level of depth she brings to a role primarily seen in her tearless, mechanical synthetic form. Radha Mitchell (2008's "Henry Poole Is Here
") is businesslike as Jennifer Peters, onscreen for bulks of time but remaining underdeveloped. The contrast between her beautiful, porcelain faux body and the real mousy woman controlling her is stark, but nothing is done with it outside of a few wordless glimpses of her actual self.
"Surrogates" is sometimes too ambitious, unable to live up to its loftier goals and various plot strands while failing to bring justice to the ensemble of characters. Perhaps a longer cut that fills in the gaps is somewhere in existence; the theatrical version, after all, runs a brief 88 minutes. Despite what is an admittedly uneven picture, the stuff that does work works really well. The action sequences, from a helicopter crash to a chase set-piece involving a robotic figure leaping through traffic and onto moving vehicles, are exciting for what they are, but an aside to the thematic truth that is the film's reason for being. With the hope for a future in jeopardy where genuine people still talk to one another, fall in love, strive for goals, and grieve, "Surrogates" broaches topical subjects with a meditative quality that blends nicely with its dark brand of not-so-far-off fantasy.