In the near future, the human race will have largely retreated indoors, experiencing a risk-free, pleasure-filled life through their robotic avatars, or surrogates, which roam the streets. But when someone starts murdering surrogates and their owners, it falls upon FBI agent Tom Greggs (Willis) to unhook himself and solve a larger conspiracy before the plug is pulled on the world for good.
Bruce Willis has saved the world so often it’s perfectly understandable if it’s becoming a little boring for him by now. He’s at it again in Surrogates, but this time the smirk has gone. The wisecracks have been placed in cold storage. The personality is flat and, as he skulks around in an un-dynamic fashion, solving a frankly uninvolving mystery, the eyes are dead. And, frankly, if Willis doesn’t look like he gives a monkey’s, what chance do the rest of us have?
A caveat: based on a graphic novel (as, it seems, most films are legally obliged to be these days), Surrogates asks you, following a clumsy news-reel dominated opening, to imagine a world where robotic surrogates have effectively taken over the world, while their human operators wither and atrophy in their locked-down hidey-holes, no longer able or willing to engage with the world at large.
So, when Willis acts like a robot in the early stages of Jonathan Mostow’s return to sci-fi (and, indeed, his return to filmmaking; he hasn’t directed since 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines), it’s fairly acceptable. The problem lies when his ‘surry’ – chiselled, airbrushed, frighteningly bewigged - is irrevocably and, thankfully for anyone who might feel that the wig could come alive at any second, fairly quickly damaged, forcing Willis The Human – bald, jowly, sporting a stubbly grey goatee that makes it look like R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe has decided to become an action hero; after all, everybody hurts – to venture out into the big, bad world. You would expect, then, Willis to inject some pep into the proceedings. Instead, he – and the film – remains maddeningly inert, a thriller and an actor going through the motions.
There’s some good stuff here – a neat chase as Willis’ surrogate chases a suspect, first in a helicopter and then, using super-powered leaps, into a decrepit refugee camp, while we get a brief but intriguing glimpse of what a war might look like if fought entirely bysurrogates – while some of the questions asked about the nature of humanity are more thought-provoking than expected.
However, despite the rich colour scheme, Mostow’s film is a surprisingly serious, dour affair with precious little humour, and none of the cartoonish, popcorn brushstrokes of Terminator 3 (which was written by the same duo, Michael Ferris and John Brancato) . For once, as Willis’ character spends scene after scene moping after his gone-to-seed wife (Rosamund Pike, the best thing in the movie), that’s a bad thing.
Theres enough here to tickle the brain cells, and just enough to satisfy the eyes, but the whole thing is so slight and so low-key that it borders on the redundant. If you can somehow find a surrogate to go watch it, by all means do so.