The overreaction in “Surrogates” is based on the world of MySpace and Facebook and social networking in general. At some point in the near future, human beings have the ability to live vicariously through robot doppelgangers. They look the way their owners want them to look, sound the way their owners want them to sound and remove the possibilities of harm or embarrassments from life experiences. Which is to say they remove life from life experiences.
They’re also so addictive that, if the opening exposition is to be believed, 90% of the planet use them (which would make them the cheapest life-like humanoid robots ever), and use them so much they don’t bother leaving their homes or even their beds if they can help it. Second Life become First Life.
It’s a bit of a stretch (and by bit, I mean roughly airport runway) but that’s okay. A fair amount of suspension of disbelief is required for these sorts of things, to keep from wondering too much why anyone would be allowed to make the robots super strong for instance. Obviously it’s to make the action sequences as thrilling as possible, but the fact that there’s no better answer than that, while typical of the genre, shows right off the bat how much thought can be expected out of it.
FBI Special Agent Greer (Bruce Willis) hasn’t been outside of his own apartment in years, using his surrogate to investigate crimes, up to and including the first death of a person due to damage done to the surrogate. And not just any person, but the son of the surrogate’s inventor (James Cromwell).
The problem is of course technology interfering with human beings’ ability to actually communicate with one another. Which it can and does, even if not to the absurd extent sci-fi tends to take things in order to make its point. And just in case that point was not made abundantly clear within the first five minutes, director Jonathan Mostow (“Terminator 3”) and his screenwriters spend the next 85 minutes expounding on it. It’s not so much beating a dead horse as driving it into the ground.
Greer has been using his surrogate as way to separate himself from the pain of real life, specifically the loss of his son some years earlier in a car accident, as has his wife (Rosamund Pike). The separation is gradually getting to him and he has begun to question, as the anti-surrogate revolutionaries have, if their idealized selves are worth the price.
Willis’ haggard face is maybe the film’s real saving grace. It perfectly sums up that price in one close-up. As his anxiety comes to the surface from trying to fit into the real world (after his surrogate is taken away). Willis is forced to cast aside his usual haughty coolness and manages to become interesting again. The filmmakers have gone to some trouble as well to tie his personal story with his wife into the overall plot, and it does work to some extent.
It also runs into the hard wall that is the overall plot. It’s not bad in and of itself; the villain is somewhat justified in what that he is doing, even if he’s gone off the deep end a bit. A villain who wants more than just villainy or power always makes a story better, and that’s more or less true of “Surrogates.” On the other hand, for his identity to remain secret as long as possible it requires Greer to be quite possibly the dumbest FBI agent in the world. Considering how easily he is lead around by the nose and has to have everything spelled out for him in big block letters, it’s a wonder he ever figures out what’s going on.
For most audiences that wouldn’t matter, they’ve just come for the action sequences where the surrogates jump around and keep going even after taking lots of damage. There’s only a few of those, unfortunately, and while well-staged they’re probably not enough to sate the modern action film lover, even in such a short movie.
Sure it’s ham-handed and shallow, with not enough panache to cover up all the spackle holding it together, but that’s okay. Underneath its typical Hollywood exterior there is a decent movie waiting quite a bit of which shines through. But so much else is just typical of the drama, it’s hard to summon any more enjoyment from it.
In fact, if any one word could sum up “Surrogates” it would be just that: typical. But you could do worse.