A film about robots that might find its biggest fans among Luddites, "Surrogates" is an intense and eerily plausible sci-fi thriller. Set in a future that uncannily resembles the present day (it must be one of the first pictures with a car chase featuring a Prius), Jonathan Mostow's smart speculative suspenser imagines a time when people can live through ideal versions of themselves while they sit wired up at home. Commercial prospects would seem solid but for the misleading and off-putting ad campaign, with very good international and ancillary careers in store for this Bruce Willis starrer.
Effective science fiction often reflects the preoccupations and anxieties of the moment when it is made, and "Surrogates," based on a graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, certainly speaks to the way people today increasingly live on their computers and other electronic devices and project themselves into the world through them. The idea that one day we may need to choose between living life directly or virtually provides the dramatic tension for the script by Mostow's "Terminator 3" collaborators John Brancato and Michael Ferris.
Rapid-fire opening credits montage reveals the technological advances that lead to the "now" of the story. With 99% of the population connected to surrogates, crime, racism and other ills have been eradicated and the streets are filled with nothing but young and attractive people. An amusing, entirely credible throwaway scene shows a military war room that resembles an orderly video arcade, with a distant desert war being fought by surrogate soldiers (who can't be killed, only mechanically damaged) visible on screens.
So life is good; everyone is pretty, there's no physical danger and people can live out their fantasies from the comfort of their "stim chairs," where no one has to see them age. There is a small dropout movement that rejects surrogacy, led by a charismatic figure called the Prophet (Ving Rhames), but these scruffy losers are confined to "reservations" where they lead a subsistence existence (and are conspicuous by virtue of their exceptional unattractiveness).
But trouble comes to paradise when two humans die when their surrogates are "killed," which is not supposed to happen. It doesn't take FBI agents Thomas Greer (Willis) and Jennifer Peters (Radha Mitchell) long to figure out that a rebel has gotten his hands on a unique weapon capable of bridging the surrogate/controller divide.
Willis' appearance is at first disconcerting; with smooth features and a blond toupe, he looks about 35, and there is something just a little off about how Greer, Peters and others stare, don't register reactions immediately and move in ever-so-slightly abrupt ways. They look like heavily retouched photographs come to life through fractional time-delay, providing just the right, light touch of creepiness to a population that looks as though it stepped out of the pages of Vogue and GQ.
Drama turns on how Greer, deprived of his surrogate after a hair-raising helicopter pursuit and crash, re-enters the world in true human form (Willis with the more familiar bald pate and goatee), much to the consternation of his wife, Maggie (Rosamund Pike), who's addicted to the surrogate lifestyle and, in a nutshell, isn't interested in growing old together. In "aged" form, Greer sticks out on the streets of Boston like a Rip Van Winkle at a singles' bar as he tries to get to the bottom of the mystery, which involves a trip to the "reservation" for a confrontation with the Prophet and, ultimately, a search for the elusive inventor of the surrogates, Dr. Lionel Canter (James Cromwell), who long ago split with the giant corporation that markets the replicants.
Mostow includes sufficient de rigueur action scenes for the popcorn crowd, and he's good at them, but what keeps the film flying at a comparatively high altitude is the sharply focused manner in which it follows through on its premise. There are aspects of the surrogate lifestyle -- reproduction, for starters -- that aren't addressed, but the picture refuses to be distracted by inessentials, and pays off on everything it sets up.
"Surrogates" distinguishes itself from countless other thematically overlapping films by being not about robots run amok, but about humans seduced by the easy life; humanity here has "advanced" so far that it has become subordinate to its substitute. As a cautionary sci-fier, it's not all that far removed from such classics as "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," and if eyebrows are raised over the issue that "Surrogates" runs only 88 minutes, it's worth remembering that the those two '50s originals ran just 92 and 80 minutes, respectively.
With the exception of Willis, who effectively trots out his wary but determined Everyman persona once his well-scrubbed substitute goes MIA, the actors are mostly required to look great and behave with a certain glacial impenetrability, which Mitchell, Pike, Boris Kodjoe (as an FBI supervisor) and James Francis Ginty (as Canter's surrogate) lead the way in doing. Devin Ratray gets good mileage out of his role as a computer whiz too proud of his corpulent geekiness to consider a more glamorous substitute.
Production values are immaculate.