October 1, 2009

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Surrogates (PG-13)
People have replaced themselves with plasticy-looking action figures in a future where the world is separated into the metalies and the meaties in Surrogates, a really swell idea for a sci-fi movie.

Tom (Bruce Willis) is an F.B.I. agent who, despite pushing 60, looks unwrinkled and ungrayed. How? He lives his life through a surrogate — a walking, air-brushed-looking mannequin who is strong, impervious to pain, flexible, perfectly coiffed, able to leap tall buildings and, while not Superman, certainly living the life of a creation very close to it. He, like most with-it modern people, stays in his jammies all day, linked via brain wave (or whatever — the opening montage explains the technology’s development) to his GQ-worthy surrogate which is pretty much the only way the world knows him. It’s even the only way his wife (Rosamund Pike) knows him anymore. She lives entirely in her bright young plastic thing, never letting her husband see the aging woman behind the bedroom door.

All of Tom’s FBI colleagues are similarly shielded from him, including his partner Agent Peters (Radha Mitchell). When they go to investigate the destruction of some surrogates and find that the humans behind them have also crashed — permanently — the event isn’t just a murder (the first one in years) but a threat to the very existence of a surrogate-filled society.

And the murder — of the son of the surrogates’ creator (James Cromwell) — has all the making of a society-shifting event. The surrogates’ creator has been in seclusion for years due to a rift with the company he founded. And a group of anti-surrogates led by The Prophet (Ving Rhames) seems to be even more antsy than ever to take back the world for the humans. If surrogates — and through them their human operators — can be killed, these extremists may just have their wish.

So here’s something that doesn’t really have anything to do with the story but was interesting: Bruce Willis’ surrogate — the shiny plastic Ken doll version of him — does not look like Bruce Willis circa, say, early Moonlighting, when Willis was 30, the approximate age, I’m guessing, of his character’s surrogate. In much in the way that Botox and face-fillers and lip-plumpers take away lines and sags but don’t make you look young, the “young” surrogate (portrayed with help from, I’m guessing, a spackle-like makeup and much CGI molding) isn’t really a young-looking version of the person. Even when pressed and polished, Willis still looks old.

Or maybe that does have something to do with the movie. Maybe, as with the surrogates it portrays, no matter how you tart it up with nifty “what ifs” and neat visuals, underneath the plastic, you can only be what your genes or programming or your writing makes you. Maybe the take-away is that try as hard as you can to be all concepty and sci-fi, this is still just a mediocre cop movie.

There is a lot about the concept here that is intriguing — the idea that you can “know” somebody without ever seeing the real them (maybe that hot blonde is an old fat guy, maybe your co-worker is confined to a wheelchair); the idea of multiple identities; the idea of someone who can jump from one “person” to the next, thus making them hard to find unless you know all of their surrogates. That difference between actually being young and living in a surrogate that recreates your young self is also fascinating (you, the person controlling it, is nonetheless aging, even if the world doesn’t see it). And then there’s the idea of how we would separate — the pretty plastics and the real lumpy middle-aged people. The world of the plastics is harder, brighter, tartier and a tad silly where the world of the surrogate-condemning fleshies is dirty, backward and fundamentalist. Neither seems particularly appealing by the end of the movie — and even that is kind of fascinating.

But all this neat stuff, all these tantalizing potential plot points are mostly ignored. In the end there are good guys and bad guys, there’s a race against a clock, there’s a car chase, a shootout and a hostage situation. For all its futuristic whiz-bangness, the story is very 20th century. “Oooo, cool” on the idea front, Surrogates is merely ho-hum on the execution. C+

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, disturbing images, language, sexuality and a drug-related scene. Directed by Jonathan Mostow and written by Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato (from a graphic novel by Robert Vendetti and Brett Weldele), Surrogates is an hour and 29 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Touchstone.