In “Surrogates,” almost everyone in the world never leaves the house anymore. There’s no need, thanks to the proliferation of “surrogates,” robotic doubles that look like you (only smoother and prettier) that you can control from the comfort of home. You send them out in your place and live life through their eyes and sensors, safe and sound back at home. It started as a luxury item for people who wanted to experience, say, skydiving without risk of injury, but now everyone uses surrogates for everything.
Well, that’s the way with these things, isn’t it? Less than 15 years ago the Internet was an entertainment and information tool that we might use for a few minutes a day. Now it’s so vital to our lives that we have it on our phones, lest we ever spend a moment without access to it. (Oh, yeah — we also carry phones around with us all the time.) Surrogates caught on in the same way: once a novelty, now utterly indispensable.
This is the world imagined in a graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, now adapted as a surprisingly smart, fleet-footed sci-fi action flick. (Part of the surprise is that the screenplay was written by Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato, the duo behind “Terminator Salvation” and “Catwoman.”) No, it’s not brilliant, but with swift direction by Jonathan Mostow (“Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” “U-571”) and a solid lead performance by the ever-reliable Bruce Willis, it’s one of the year’s more entertaining sci-fi films.
Willis plays Greer, an FBI agent who, like nearly everyone else, conducts his public life entirely via surrogate. (His model looks like him only younger, with softer skin and an absurd blond head of hair.) Most of his private life is conducted that way, too — he and his wife, Maggie (Rosamund Pike), haven’t seen each other for real, in person, in ages, even in their apartment. (They have separate bedrooms. If they ever have marital relations anymore, one assumes there’s a separate room for that, too, where the surrogates do it.)
In the tradition of the hard-boiled detective, Greer — who is grizzled and careworn in person, barely resembling his more presentable surrogate (you tend to let yourself go when no one ever sees you) — has grown weary of all this and is wondering if mankind might have been better off before the surrogates came around. Then, as if to prove the point, someone gets killed. A mystery man deploys a strange weapon against a surrogate, frying its motherboard and somehow sending a charge back to the user and melting his brain. Needless to say, this goes against the whole point of surrogates, which is to protect the user from harm. And anyone who can melt your brain via remote control is obviously not to be trifled with.
Greer and his partner, Peters (Radha Mitchell), are assigned to the case, which grows more interesting when they learn the victim was the son of Lionel Canter (James Cromwell), the billionaire who invented surrogates and was subsequently forced out of the company that makes them. Is someone trying to get back at the inventor? Maybe one of the rising number of people who oppose surrogacy and have started living in machine-free communes on the outskirts of major cities? Maybe their leader, an enigmatic fire-and-brimstone fellow who calls himself the Prophet (Ving Rhames)?
Like most good sci-fi, the story considers the human ramifications of advanced technology while still doling out plenty of just-for-kicks entertainment and nifty “what if?” scenarios. (What if you connected to someone else’s surrogate?) Greer and his wife lost a son a while back, which helps account for their desire to draw inward. There is more than one shot of a character disconnecting from his or her surrogate and crying over what he or she has seen through its eyes. (When someone disconnects, of course, the surrogate just stands there, blank-faced. If a conversation gets too intense, you can escape by literally shutting yourself down.) It’s a very sad idea, this notion of trying to experience life safely, without truly interacting with anyone.
Greer and Maggie’s fractured marriage could have been explored better than it is, and Radha Mitchell’s performance as Greer’s FBI partner is rather wooden. (Yes, she’s a robot most of the time. But so is everyone else, and they don’t act like that.) Like I said, this isn’t groundbreaking stuff. But it’s smart and enjoyable, and the message is “go outside, nerds!,” which is always nice to hear.
B+ (1 hr., 30 min.; )