Monday, October 5, 2009


"Terminator 3" director Jonathan Mostow must have seemed like the perfect choice for the Bruce Willis science fiction crime thriller "Surrogates," (** out of ****)about life-like robots serving as the arms and legs of future society. "Terminator: Salvation" scenarists John Brancato and Michael Ferris adapted the five-issue, limited series, Top Shelf Comics graphic novel "The Surrogates" that Robert Venditti wrote and Brett Weldele illustrated. Naturally, Mostow and his writers wound up making some inevitable changes. Nevertheless, the premise of "Surrogates" has lost none of its intrigue. Venditti told "The Graphic Novel Reporter" magazine about the origins of "Surrogates": "It dawned on me that if you were somehow able to create a persona and send it out into the real world—where it could go to work for you, and run your errands, and so on—then you would never have to go back to being yourself."
Consequently, the agoraphobic society of "Surrogates" confines themselves to interacting vicariously with each other through surrogate androids. Often, these humanoid robots are younger and sexier than their operators. Sometimes, a man masquerades as a female android, and Caucasian Americans pose as African-Americans.

After the first 45 minutes, however, this futuristic, Philip K. Dick style saga about the changes that surrogates have wrought on mankind degenerates into a predictable FBI procedural that loses its urgency. Ultimately, Bruce Willis must forsake the flawed justice system, turn into a rogue cop, and defeat corruption at the highest levels. Were this not enough, Brancato and Ferris insert a subplot about our hero's son who died tragically in a car accident and his persistent struggle to pull his wife out of the depression that she suffers as a result of their son's death. Little of this scenario, however, turns out to be thrilling. The villains aren't intimidating enough, and the heroes simply aren't that heroic. Some of the action is interesting, but there is absolutely nothing in the way of suspense until our hero has to venture into the cold, cruel world without a surrogate and even then nothing exciting happens.

"Surrogates" opens with a prologue that covers the origins of these androids and how they became an everyday fact of life. Mostow and his writers do an admirable job of setting up the premise so it seems believable. The year is 2017. Everybody plugs into a life-sized surrogate and conducts their daily business with the use of these
robots. Few people leave their houses. The crime rate plunges. Surrogates are less prone to injury. They can leap over cars to avoid being struck by other vehicles. Finally they are immune to STDs. Imagine living like you were in "The Matrix," where you spend most of your waking hours sprawled on a couch, with sensory headgear attached to your noggin that enables you to carry on your daily activities through
a surrogate robot. Indeed, you cannot walk down the street without seeing surrogates everywhere, and few people own surrogates that don't add glamor to their appearance.

Government Agents Tom Greer (Bruce Willis of "Die Hard") and Jennifer Peters (Radha Mitchell of "Melinda and Melinda") work in the FBI's Surrogate Crime Unit. When two surrogates and their human operators are murdered under mysterious circumstances, Special Agent Andrew Stone Boris Kodjoe)assigns Greer and Peters to investigate what constitutes the first murder in many moons. Somebody has obtained a deadly weapon that fires a jagged blue lightning bolt at a surrogate and kills the operator with the same blast. Later, the killer wipes out five Boston cops on his heels. As it turns out, one of the initial homicide victims was the son of Canter (James Cromwell of "L.A. Confidential"), who invented surrogates for the VSI Corporation. In the beginning, Cantor felt that surrogates would make life easier for people with handicaps who could not get out. As it turns out, the villains were trying to kill Cantor, not his son. Nevertheless, the elder Canter had loaned his surrogate to his university age son (James Francis Ginty of "K-19 Widowmaker") who had planned a night out on the town when the murderer struck. Greer starting snooping and learns that the weapon used to kill Canter's son had been tested by the Pentagon. The military canceled their order when they discovered the lethal side effects of the weapon. Basically, the weapon transmits a virus to the humanoid machines, enters their operator's head and liquefied their brains.

Mostow and his writers have divided "Surrogates" into two movies: the surrogate homicide investigation and Greer's tragic personal home life. The situation hits the fan when the FBI track down a suspect, Strickland (Jack Noseworthy of "Breakdown"), who has the weapon. Strickland flees from the Boston Police while Greer follows him
overhead in an FBI chopper. Certain areas are off limits to surrogates and humans who refuse to use surrogates live in those areas. Strickland heads to a zone where surrogates are not allowed to enter. Greer's helicopter crashes in one of these areas and the humans attack Greer, obliterate him, and hang him in effigy. Now, Greer has to venture out into society as himself without a surrogate and he finds it difficult to negotiate a world overrun by robots.

Unfortunately, "Surrogates" runs out of steam, and the ending is as contrived as they come. This may be the first film to espouse a negative attitude toward futuristic technology that intrudes into our lives. The villains fail to make an impression. Brancato and Ferris spring some surprises, but none are truly alarming. The scene near the end where all the people fall down in the streets was probably a hassle to stage. "Surrogates" is imaginative but rarely exciting thriller. The idea that technology will exact a toll of our humanity and its ramifications is more interesting than it hopped up action scenes. Bruce Willis can do better than this nonsense. "Gamer" was far better than this lame whodunit.