Superhero Movie Month: "Surrogates" Review

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Bruce Willis stars in this sci-fi thriller set in a near future where hardly anyone interfaces directly with another human being anymore. Instead, they live their lives through robots known as surrogates, or "surries" for short, who look like attractive humans in the prime of life. However trouble eventually arises when two people die because their surrogates are catastrophically damaged, which is supposed to be impossible. That's when FBI agent Greer (Willis) swings into action, suspecting immediately the nonconformists who reject surrogacy and live on reservations.
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Rating: PG-13
Length: 89 minutes
Release Date: September 25, 2009
Directed by: Jonathan Mostow
Genre: Action / Sci-Fi / Thriller

The 2009 sci-fi thriller "Surrogates" is skeptical of people's relationship with technology and the growing frequency with which individuals choose to interact over the Internet, through their mobile phones or with another buffer in place. "Surrogates" is hardly subtle in its critique of people's dependence on their devices, but it does make for a fun and often clever ride.

A breezy introductory segment sets both the pace and tone for the film. In the near future, human beings interact through surrogate robots that they can control from the comfort of their homes. Outside of a handful of holdouts who live on "reservations," where advanced technology is not allowed, the vast majority of people choose to live in isolation, working and socializing through their surrogates.

Bruce Willis plays Greer, an FBI agent who is already suspicious of surrogate usage. Greer lost his son to a car accident some years earlier and has watched his wife become more and more dependent on her surrogate to get through the day. When the son of Canter, the founder of surrogate technology, is murdered, Greer finds more reasons to distrust his robotic stand-in.

In the future of "Surrogates," violent crimes are uncommon since human beings rarely interact face to face. However, a new weapon that allows for the simultaneous destruction of a surrogate and the murder of whoever is operating it is responsible for the first homicide in recent memory.

Greer begins the movie safe within his own surrogate body, which looks like a floppy-haired, plastic-skinned version of a young Bruce Willis. However, as the mystery deepens and it becomes clear that the FBI is dealing with a weapon that kills both surrogate and user, Greer opts to abandon his robot body and venture out in the world in his own flesh and blood.

His investigation takes him onto one of the reservations where people live without surrogates, and he meets the charismatic leader known as the Prophet, a human who calls for violent revolution to rid mankind of its reliance on machines. Outside the walls of the reservation, however, Greer's human body is part annoyance and part curiosity to the surrogate users who surround him.

The conspiracy at the film's heart goes deep but is fairly routine for thrillers of this type. Much more exciting is the world in which the movie takes place. The film does not delve excessively deep into this future utopia, but it offers a number of compelling glances.

"Surrogates" is based on a comic series by writer Robert Venditti and artist Brett Weldele, and many of its best moments are visual in nature, such as when Greer's surrogate rides the subway with a row of plastic-looking mannequins plugged into surrogate chargers. Other individual images hint nicely at a larger world. Some are poignant, as when Greer's partner Peters unplugs from her surrogate in her apartment next to an easel on which she has been working on a painting of a landscape. Others are bizarre, such as a surrogate party in which the main attraction is an electric shock applied by a blue wand.

On the technical side, the movie is in capable hands. Director Jonathan Mostow also worked on "Terminator 3" and "Breakdown". He brings a brisk and confident style to the movie. Few scenes really stand out, but Mostow manages the constantly shifting faces caused by characters plugging into different surrogates quite adeptly.

The action sequences are also handled well. Of special note is a car chase late in the film that pushes the slapstick potential of a world filled with robots. However, it sometimes seems that the conspiracy portions of the movie progress a little too quickly, moving briskly from one coincidence to the next.

Willis is reliable as usual, and he seems to be having a lot of fun playing a robotic version of himself. Rosamund Pike as Greer's wife, James Cromwell as the inventor Canter and Boris Kodjoe as his impossibly handsome boss, Director Stone, all do good work with relatively small roles that do not give them a lot to sink their teeth into.

When taken as a cautionary tale, "Surrogates" is unlikely to warn anyone off using their smartphone any time soon. However, the film provides an entertaining and sometimes funny glimpse into a possible future. Clocking in with a final run time of less than 90 minutes, it moves along briskly from one set piece to the next so that at least it can be said that the film is never boring.