Director Jonathan Mostow has never offended me as a filmgoer. His pictures have been routinely well constructed and visually interesting ("Terminator 3," "U-571," "Breakdown"), even in the face of underwhelming plots and misguided performances. "Surrogates" is undoubtedly a misfire for the filmmaker, but it's an interesting failure, peppered with a few memorable sequences and an appropriate, timely message highlighting the acceleration of social disconnect. While ambitious, the rhythm is off on this limping picture, with the fingerprints of severe studio interference smudging up the movie from the start.
In the future, society will employ the use of Surrogates, robotic avatars that are sent out into the word to conduct daily business. They are the ideal version of the user, with smooth looks and near indestructibility. When an important Surrogate is killed with a special military weapon, F.B.I. Agent Greer (Bruce Willis) is sent in to investigate. Finding the trail of clues leading to a community of human beings who choose to live life with their own flesh and blood, overseen by the influential Prophet (Ving Rhames), Agent Greer enters their forbidden city, only to watch his Surrogate destroyed. Now without his buffer to the outside world, Agent Greer is forced to interact with a menacing Surrogate population, including his estranged wife, Maggie (Rosamund Pike).
Adapted from 2006 graphic novel, "The Surrogates," the feature film realization preserves a distinctly illustrated quality to the material, keeping a tone of page-turning mystery and flashy sci-fi discovery. It's a handsome picture, photographed sharply and brimming with curious fantasy touches sold well by the numerous special effects, with the centerpiece being the network of Surrogates. Chillingly dead-eyed machines with vivid features and silky skin, the Surrogates generate the tension and mystery of the piece, and Mostow juggles the balance between robotic advancement and emotional distance soundly, laying on the technological detachment theme thick, but effectively. When all is lost in the film (and it unravels eventually), the design and execution of the Surrogate figures remain visually stimulating to the end.
The confidential weapon capable of slaughtering Surrogates is the major question mark of the film, but the mystery surrounding the gun and its various owners is never massaged hard enough to reach critical mass. Instead the feature jumps from turn to turn, suggesting that "Surrogates" was trimmed heavily on its way to the multiplex. While filled with colorful characters with plenty on their minds, the story has been pared down to the bare essentials of action and whodunit. There's not much room to breathe here, highlighted uncomfortably in the relationship between Greer and Maggie. A married couple unable to cope with the tragic loss of their young son, the pair has taken to Surrogacy to numb the pain. It's a plotline that appears integral to the overall story, but all that's left in "Surrogates" are melodramatic fragments that are poorly finessed into the film, again suggesting cold studio hands restructured the plot without Mostow's cooperation, leaving turbulent waves of emotion behind, absent the necessary, gentle context.
Bruce Willis looks a little bored here at times and is miscast as the baffled hero. Thankfully he's surrounded by a fine supporting cast (including Radha Mitchell and Buzz from "Home Alone" himself, Devin Ratray, here as a slob F.B.I. tech wizard) who seem to be enjoying the Surrogate fantasy and futureworld trimmings. "Surrogates" is short (85 minutes) and fails to land a killing blow that pays off the simplified mystery with any distinct urgency. It's a flawed film, but far from unbearable. Nothing a DVD director's cut couldn't fix.
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