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.

RATING 5 / 10