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‘Surrogates’ is poor substitute for better science-fiction films



Published: Sat, September 26, 2009 @ 12:00 a.m.

By Roger Moore

“Surrogates” is a workmanlike sci-fi action film with few pretenses, a movie that hints at much but grapples with little.

Set in the very near future, it’s about the ways technology disconnects us from reality and humanity, about the obsession with physical perfection, the death of privacy, corporatization and, not really a stretch, the U.S. techno-war against radical primitivism.

That’s a lot to cull from the Robert Venditti/Brett Weldele comic book, which was a much more succinct commentary on our cell-phone/Facebook/avatar lives, with the idea that this tech fixation is going to kill us.

In the “Surrogates” future, everybody who’s anybody has bought a better version of themselves — sleek, sexy robots with TV anchor-Barbie hair and Disney Channel skin. These alternates work, flirt and play in our place while we lie, in our pajamas, in a “stim” chair, watching and sensing everything our younger, cooler and perfect selves do. People are free to be as impulsive, reckless and feckless as they want. Accidental deaths in civilian life have gone the way of killed-in-action in the surrogate military.

Crime has disappeared, the world seems a safer, cleaner place — save for those who resist the temptation to walk the Earth as digital improvements on themselves.

But somebody is sneaking about, shorting out surrogates and the people who own them. That prompts FBI agent Greer (Bruce Willis, leaner, hairier and younger than he’s been in 30 years) to mutter, “We may have ourselves an actual homicide here.” He and his partner (Radha Mitchell, perfect at portraying the physically perfect) chase down clues through the inventor of surrogates (James Cromwell, and younger proxies) all the way to “The Rez,” Boston’s independent enclave of surrogate- hating technology-eschewing survivalists, a “Human Coalition” led by their prophet (Ving Rhames, well cast).

Before you can say “Of course that’s what he’ll do,” Greer has gone “off the Rez,” stopped investigating the case through his surrogate and started running around in his bald, battered old body, and running the risk of actually getting killed on the job.

Characters pause, from time to time, to debate what it means to be human. Actually, that was debated in the similar “Blade Runner.” This 86-minute film doesn’t so much debate as hit a few talking points. Derivative tales such as this are equal-opportunity borrowers — a little “I, Robot,” some “Minority Report,” a hint of “A.I.,” and so on. A running argument between Greer and his wife (Rosamund Pike, polished beyond perfection) holds the promise of explaining why someone would withdraw into this digital world and refuse to come out. The promise isn’t quite kept.

Director Jonathan Mostow (“U-571”) keeps things moving, which doesn’t quite block the questions that rush in. Why would a digital me look at his digital watch? Why would there be “watcher” robots to monitor surveillance cameras when that’s already a job for a simpler computer? And “do androids dream of electric sheep?” That last one is the title of the Philip K. Dick short story that is the jumping-off point for pretty much every machine-humanity debate in the robot/clone corner of sci-fi, beginning with “Blade Runner.”

It makes for a movie that is watchable, but obvious — from the places the big explosions come in the formula to the big “conspiracy explanation” speeches among the principals. And for all the inspirations, the pieces of better stories that this tale was concocted from, “Surrogates” never manages to be anything more than a poor substitute for the real thing.


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