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'Surrogates' high on concept, low on substance

Article Published: Oct. 19, 2009 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
'Surrogates' high on concept, low on substance

"Man, I could use an aspirin." Bruce Willis and his headache star in 'Surrogates.'

A somewhat consistent theme in most Bruce Willis movies is that our hero wakes up with a hangover, headache or both.

The sci-fi thriller Surrogates follows this formula and a handful of cliched others, sacrificing depth for flash, and in less than 90 minutes.

That's not to say Surrogates is without merit. Director Jonathan Mostow (Terminator 3) presents a compelling concept set in a world filled with shiny happy people. The catch? They're not real people.

In the not-too-distant future, real people are found indoors, clad in bathrobes and pajamas, and slouched in a near vegetative state behind their computers - not such a foreign concept.
Rather than World of Warcraft, they're playing "themselves," or rather their robotic surrogates - life-sized, fleshed and green-blooded avatars, perpetually young, attractive and snappily dressed - through which they lead the bulk of their lives.

More than 90 percent of the population lives life through their surrogates, sensing everything their units encounter and enjoying near superhuman abilities without any repercussions.
Crime is at an all-time low, wars are fought in control rooms through armies of surrogates, and simulated life seems too good to be true. It's getting to be that way for FBI Agent Greer (Bruce Willis, Die Hard), weary of the superficiality and longing to see his wife, Maggie (Rosamund Pike, Pride & Prejudice), in the flesh.

Mourning the death of their son, the depressed Maggie has fully embraced the surrogate lifestyle, unwilling to disconnect but for time enough to pop her pills, catch some Zs and log back on.

Greer begins to sympathize with a rebel group called the Dreads, led by the appropriately dreadlocked Prophet (Ving Rhames, Pulp Fiction), members of which consider surrogates abominations and live in human-only shantytowns.

The setup is intriguing, offering a believable back story and prompting beaucoups of questions about this society: How does humanity reproduce? Why is the crime rate so low? Can surrogates eat or drink? Is Bill Gates involved?

Just as we're introduced to this fascinating world, a formulaic plot kicks in by way of whodunit. The son of surrogate creator Lionel Canter (James Cromwell, Babe) is curiously killed when his unit is more or less fried by a mysterious assailant, resulting in an unprecedented crime for Greer and partner Peters (Radha Mitchell, Silent Hill) to solve.

Their investigation leads to an explosive game of cat-and-mouse, corruption and pretty, pretty faces. But along the way, Greer's blond-haired and youthful surrogate is rendered inoperative, and he must face the world as his scarred, unshaven and bald self. And with a headache. It's a striking contrast to the film's eerie setting, in all its air-brushed, blemish-free and vacant-eyed glory.

While Surrogates is stylistically appealing, its screenplay is about as superficial as its namesake. Though based on the graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, the film was written by Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato of Catwoman infamy.

Fortunately, Surrogates never sinks that low, though its simplistic dialogue is oftentimes laughable, and its formulaic plot is padded with well-shot, but not very suspenseful, action sequences.

Willis does well as Greer, a role he could play in his sleep, considering the world-weary cop is kind of his thing, but the lackluster dialogue leaves little room for any John McClane-ish wisecracking and, daresay, fun.

Surrogates succeeds on the philosophical level, if only briefly, calling into question the effects of increasingly prevalent technology on one's humanity. But at a hurried 88 minutes, it rushes through the motions - no time for pit stops or reflection until all is said and done. No wonder Willis has a headache.

Surrogates, rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, disturbing images, language, sexuality and a drug-related scene, is playing at Regal Cinema 7 in Boone.

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