Yet another feature based on a graphic novel, Surrogates is surprisingly taut as a sci-fi thriller, even though the man vs. machine theme is getting somewhat old.
Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) is a cop who lives in a futuristic world in which advanced robotics have made it possible for people to "live their lives" without ever leaving their homes. These robots are called surrogates, developed and marketed by a global corporation called VSI, founded by inventor Canter (James Cromwell). With these surrogates, the human "operators" can be whoever they want to be, and do whatever they want to do without the danger of being killed or harmed, and privacy laws protect their true identities, if they wish. In fact, cops like Greer haven't had to deal with violent crimes for a long time.
Greer and his wife, Maggie (Rosamund Pike), have their respective surrogates that look like their younger selves. They also have not interacted with each other in person since their son's death in an accident years ago. A double-homicide puzzles Greer -- surrogates are supposed to be safe. When Greer and his partner, Peters (Radha Mitchell) discover the identity of one of the victims, their investigation leads them to Canter and the leader of the human faction (who see surrogates as abominations), The Prophet (Ving Rhames). Somehow, someone has invented a lethal weapon that kills an operator while connected to the surrogate.
When Greer (or should we say, his surrogate) is in pursuit of a suspect, he stumbles into the human-only colony and the surrogate is destroyed. Having violated the treaty, Greer is suspended and has to go about without his surrogate. After years of isolation from the "real world," Greer has a hard time adjusting to being "human" again, among all the surrogates in the world. But he's not giving up, and his investigation reveals a dark conspiracy that threatens everyone in the world.
Bruce Willis (Die Hard 4) is the perfect go-to guy to play the disillusioned cop. He's in his full Die Hard mode, but in a strange futuristic setting. The "young" Willis as a surrogate is in fact very creepy to look at. But age is on Willis's side, and his portrayal of Greer is seasoned and solid. Rahda Mitchell (Feast of Love) is a good partner to Willis: young, attractive, and tough. The fact that she plays a surrogate is also creepy, but less so since we hardly get to know or see the "operator" behind the scene.
Rosamund Pike (Fracture) is refined in her dual roles as Greer's wife and her surrogate. There's an interesting and appropriate plasticity to her performance as the surrogate, while her portrayal of the grieving wife is very touching. James Cromwell (W) is dutiful as Canter. Ving Rhames (The Tournament) is wasted as The Prophet (although once you know who he really is, you'd know why). Boris Kodjoe (All About Us) is somewhat slight as a pivotal character, and Jack Noseworthy (Pretty Ugly People) is also wasted in a relatively trivial role.
Adapted from a graphic novel, the screenplay is written by Michael Ferris (Terminator Salvation) and John D. Brancato (Terminator Salvation). Surprisingly, it follows a taut action-thriller structure interspersed with personal drama. The suspense, action, and dialogue are all very standard, but the premise is an intriguing one. We can't help but ask: What would we do if we could live our lives without danger, and we can be whoever we want to be? In a way, some of us already are living that kind of fantasies with their online personas and avatars. The thematic questions are profound: What is real? What does mean to be human?
The sci-fi elements of the story are intriguing, although we've seen many man vs. machine stories already, most notably the Terminator series (the writers worked on the latest film). There's a certain tiresomeness in all that. What Ferris and Brancato have succeeded is to inject drama and true human emotions into the action-packed plot, and make us care about these characters. They also are able to slow down the pace to ask intriguing moral questions, about right and wrong, or does the end justify the means?
Director Jonathan Mostow (Terminator 3) is no stranger to action films, and his direction is suitable for the material. The pacing is right, with good amount of interpersonal drama without bogging down the plot. The production is slick (although at times it does feel a bit "low" budget). The editing is sharp and creates good tension and suspense. While the final act and climax are rather contrived, they fit the story arc and are appropriate and satisfying for the story.
After so much recent disappointment with regard to graphic novel-based features, I'm pleasantly surprised by Surrogates. While it's far from being perfect or groundbreaking, the movie is solid sci-fi escapism that offers some profound meditation on the age-old questions about technologies and humanity.
Stars: Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, Boris Kodjoe, James Francis Ginty, James Cromwell, Ving Rhames, Jack Noseworthy
Director: Jonathan Mostow
Writers: Michael Ferris, John D. Brancato (based on graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele)
Distributor: Walt Disney
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, disturbing images, language, sexuality and drug-related scenes
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 7
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 7.2 out of 10