Hollywood seems to think sci-fi and action go together like wantan mee and pickled green chillies. For a genre known as "the literature of ideas", science fiction is almost always coupled with slam-bang action sequences featuring shiny metal machines, glowing death rays, physically impossible feats, and sometimes all three. Not that there's anything wrong with that per se. There are plenty of sci-fi action movies that don't sacrifice intelligence for stuff blowing up, and a good old-fashioned thrill ride of a movie can be made even better with some thought-provoking themes and ideas.
But sometimes, the chillies overpower the wantans.
In the near future, everyone uses "surrogates" - robot bodies that interact with the world, that look younger and more beautiful (or look like anything you want, even the opposite sex) - while their real bodies stay at home. They control the surrogates with their minds and can feel every sensation, which virtually eliminates the need to leave their homes. But everything changes when the "murder" of two surrogates also kills their operators, something that should not be possible. FBI Agents Greer (Bruce Willis) and Peters (Radha Mitchell) investigate, overseen by their boss Stone (Boris Kodjoe). As Greer feels increasingly alienated from his wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike), he also uncovers a possible conspiracy involving the anti-surrogacy movement leader Prophet (Ving Rhames), and the inventor of surrogacy himself, Lionel Canter (James Cromwell).
It's a fascinating premise (based on a comicbook), and the film is best when it's exploring the implications of a world where nobody are their true selves, only better-looking versions thereof. The concept of surrogates seems like a natural extension of online avatars, and anyone who has one - whether in an Massively-Multiplayer Online gameworld, or even a simple web forum - knows how tempting it is to make it one that exaggerates or outright distorts your image. (See that pic in the About Me section? Went through a lot of shots before I took one that I'm happy with.) So as an idea and a setting, it's nice and meaty.
But as a story, Surrogates falls short. The plot goes through well-trodden territory and reaches an underwhelming end. The procedural aspects of Greer's and Peterson's investigation are unconvincing - and I'd argue this is an important aspect since the story is at heart a mystery. And the unraveling of the mystery is epic meh. Plot holes are aplenty, and characterization is just as thin. It seemed as though director Jonathan Mostow and writers John Brancato and Michael Ferris just couldn't be bothered to flesh out enough of the details. Also, the production design is unforgivably lazy; I don't buy this as a radically changed future for a second, considering how everything looks perfectly 2009.
Worst of all is how the film takes an intriguing idea and turns it into your basic luddite screed against technology. I wasn't expecting an even-handed portrayal of surrogacy, but I was disappointed how quickly it turned from intelligent exploration of the idea to thoughtless condemnation of it. And I suspect the blame partly lies with making it an action film - which of course means that much of the running time needs to be occupied with action scenes. (They aren't even very good action scenes; competently done, but uninteresting.) I can see a far more thoughtful, contemplative, Blade Runner-esque approach that would've done more justice to the premise. The movie really feels like a pearl that fell into the hands of swine.
An interesting thing about the surrogates is that their facial expressions really are robotic, i.e. incapable of displaying deep emotions. It's interesting, but it also makes for a lot of wooden acting. Because Greer's "meatbag" body is the one we see most of, Willis' performance is the only one of note. But he can't do much with such a sketchy character; the one scene in which he does his wisecracking maverick cop thing feels like it was thrown in just for Willis to play John McClane once again. The whole movie is curiously lacking in humour, or even fun of any kind.
Mostow, Brancato and Ferris were responsible for the third instalment of the Terminator series, and they haven't improved. They didn't originate the "technology is eeeevil" theme of that franchise, but they recycle it here, and it dumbs down what should've been a smart story. Just as Hollywood always tries to blend sci-fi with action, so do they keep returning to the well of techno-fear-mongering. ("Beware the arrogance of science, lest it lead ye to destruction and/or an initially-cool-but-ultimately-dehumanizing society!") And there's nothing wrong with that per se either. It just needs to be done a lot smarter than this.
NEXT REVIEW: Whiteout
Anticipation level: outlook is not good