Surrogates makes no secret of its well-known science fiction sources. It steals obviously from Minority Report, I, Robot, Blade Runner, or any other movie that mixes up the future, robots, and cops. It’s also a little too like the recent movie Gamer, James Cameron’s upcoming Avatar, and Joss Whedon’s TV series Dollhouse. This particular permutation has cop Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) investigating a rare violent death in a world where most people spend heir lives sitting at home and controlling customized robotic doppelgangers.
These robots have reduced violent crime—or at least its negative effects, as the surrogates can’t be traditionally “murdered”—and neutralized race tensions, as users can choose their own physical characteristics. But Greer, like a lot of sci-fi heroes (especially those played by Willis) is suspicious of technology, and doesn’t trust that the mysterious plugged-in death of a surrogate user is a mere accident.
His intuition is obviously right—and the film doesn’t do much to complicate the possibilities for his solving its noirish mystery. It doesn’t present enough suspects, twists, or procedure for a proper whodunit. To describe Greer’s minimal inquiry further would only provide solve-it-yourself tools, and distract from the film’s square but considerable strengths. As directed by Jonathan Mostow, it’s a rote mystery rooted in a well-realized world.
The details of this world are visually effective. When we first see Willis, for example, he’s Greer’s clear-skinned, blonde-haired surrogate. Subtle computerized de-aging effects give all of the robots a waxy, soft-focus, slightly artificial look; audiences may chuckle at another bad Bruno toupee, but the movie shrewdly makes the weathered, bald, beat-up version of Willis a welcome sight, as well as a sly commentary on the forever-young faces we often see at the movies.
The appeal of reality over a buffed and polished fantasy is a thread throughout the film, as Greer’s wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike) wants nothing to do with anyone who is flesh and blood, much to Greer’s hurt and disappointment (this is well-conveyed by Willis, more in anguished mode here than action-hero autopilot). Greer stubbornly decides to stumble through this semi-artificial world in his natural state: unnatural bodies, we see, are more susceptible to casual abuse, or even hijacking. Mostow has some fun testing the limits of surrogate-led mayhem; it’s only a matter of time before humans’ abilities to make their robots run, jump, take a punch or knock around speeding cars can begin to take a toll on community morality and social relations.
Most of the movie’s philosophizing is boilerplate, about the distancing effects of plugging in. But its unpretentious earnestness gives Surrogates a mild kick. It would more impact, of course, with a script as tightly plotted as Minority Report‘s, still a model of procedures, thrills, and sci-fi ideas. But in a year when the most prominent science fiction movie involves robots alternately changing into cars and smashing into each other, Surrogates offers a Willis-like diversion: familiar, shopworn, but not without skill.