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Virtually Living Vicariously

MOVIE REVIEW
Surrogates (2009)

680_VFX_00023
Touchstone Pictures

There’s an interesting movie buried inside “Surrogates,” but it rarely emerges. From director Jonathan Mostow and screenwriters Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato, the film squanders a premise rife with potential on rote police theatrics. A lackadaisical adaptation of the eponymous graphic novel series penned by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, the picture trades in hoary Bruce Willis procedural clichés and underdeveloped conceits.

It depicts a milieu filled with an intriguing combination of Utopian and dystopian tropes, in which humans have turned into shut-ins, living their lives absconded behind automated surrogates. But instead of exploring the setting in depth and showing off the conceptual imagination therein, the film restricts itself to a conventional narrative unfolding amid a series of pedestrian locations — such as police headquarters and a sleek apartment — given a barely heightened modernist sheen.

In the future, the advent of surrogacy has dropped crime to record lows, with an everyday world inhabited solely by machines controlled by their owners from the safety of their homes reducing the opportunities to inflict physical harm. Still, when a glitch in the system leads to the destruction of two surrogates and the death of their operators, Boston-based F.B.I. agents Tom Greer (Mr. Willis) and Peters (Radha Mitchell) have enough of the good old-fashioned crime-solving inquisitiveness left to get on the case. A giant conspiracy begins to unravel and Tom finds himself forced to unplug and to begin living as himself again.

Given the topical nature of the story and the many qualities it shares with the best works of speculative science fiction, one has to wonder why the movie trades so heavily in standard conspiracy thriller motifs. One character describes surrogacy as a disease, but the filmmakers never consider the broader ramifications of such an enormous affliction. Questions of identity manipulations, of the larger implications of such a profound evolutionary step and the ways the most basic traits of humankind have been fundamentally altered by it go unexplored. Besides the reduction in crime and the prevalence of the prettified mannequin surrogates caked in globs of shiny makeup, the society they inhabit functions as little more than a standard approximation of our own.

Instead, Mr. Mostow and his colleagues present Mr. Willis doing his usual stoic, lone-man hero shtick and a deadened investigation centered on a weapon, the military and, ho-hum, a big private corporation. The majority of the picture consists of halfhearted action scenes robbed of suspense by the surrogates’ indestructibility, a “Pulp Fiction” reunion between the star and Ving Rhames as a dreadlocked prophet and frequent violations of the established ground rules. Made without the vision and insight of great science fiction, “Surrogates” comes across as less of a cautionary tale about our unhealthy connection to the virtual world than a standard Bruce Willis paycheck.

SURROGATES

Opened on Sept. 25 in the United States and Britain.

Directed by Jonathan Mostow; written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, based on the graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele; director of photography, Oliver Wood; edited by Kevin Stitt; music by Richard Marvin; production designer, Jeff Mann; produced by David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman and Max Handelman; released by Touchstone Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 29 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A. and 12A by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Bruce Willis (Greer), Radha Mitchell (Peters), Rosamund Pike (Maggie), Boris Kodjoe (Stone), James Francis Ginty (Canter), James Cromwell (Older Canter) and Ving Rhames (the Prophet).

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