Every couple films, I've noticed something really odd about Touchstone Pictures. I'm not attacking the studio; they've made plenty of good movies and will undoubtedly make more, yet sometimes I feel like they have a computer hidden away on their lot with a fill-in-the-blank interface for "blockbuster" movies. Just type in a mildly clever idea, add some actors (at least one megastar), press "Start" and out pops a pre-packaged motion picture, sealed neatly in clear cellophane, ready to be delivered to audiences with a minimum amount of effort. Surrogates is one of those movies. The idea of a future where people experience life through mind-controlled androids is just good enough to trick innocent filmgoers into thinking it's enough to float a movie, and Bruce Willis has exactly the right kind of broad appeal to draw in any stragglers who aren't quite convinced, but there's no movie here -- just a shell, motivated by the bottom line.
One of the most disheartening things about the film is how disinterested Bruce Willis seems by the endeavor. Playing Greer, the same Tired Movie Policeman from thousands of his other movies, the actor sleepwalks through Surrogates, hitting each emotional note with the lowest amount of required energy possible. I've seen plenty of lame-duck films where Willis' sense of humor and line delivery were enough to elevate the project entire grades at a time, but even at a measly 88 minutes, Surrogates proves too large a bland mass for the actor to overcome. Even Bruce's few moments of clarity are a letdown; they're so infrequent, brief and unrelated, they feel less like a reprieve and more like the film dangling a pipe dream in front of the audience. Curiously, almost all of these moments occur while we're seeing Greer as his CGI-enhanced surrogate rather than the man himself. It's ironic that a movie arguing for real, human emotions over ones experienced via electronic proxy is almost completely ruined by the opposite problem.
Aside from Willis, most of the other actors here are shoved to the side by the film's brief running time. Willis is briefly reunited with his Pulp Fiction co-star Ving Rhames, but Rhames has a thankless role that never develops. Radha Mitchell's character Peters seems less predestined towards two-dimensionality, but there's no room amongst the film's tired murder plot for any backstory on her character's real-life persona. Worst of all, disappointingly, is veteran character actor James Cromwell, barely inhabiting a hackneyed role with even the slightest bit of life. During Cantor's first major scene in the film, he meets with Greer and Peters through a special surrogate, and I'd much rather have watched that actor (who I can't concretely pick out on IMDb) give 110% than see Cromwell giving 0%. The only notable thing about Cromwell's entire participation is how much he resembles James Cameron. Only Rosamund Pike gets enough screen time to create anything for the audience to latch onto, but two of her moments are marred by the movie's goofy science fiction (scoring inappropriate laughter from the audience).
Some elements of the idea are great. Dr. Canter invented the concept of surrogacy with medical intentions, to allow the disabled or injured to experience day-to-day life again, yet the public seems to have adapted it to its current purpose. The film also touches on alternate, feeling-free models of surrogates, how a surrogate can allow people to live a double life (it's the anonymous internet chatroom of the future!), and the tumultuous co-existence of the machines and people who find living through a machine to be an abomination. Screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris have other things in mind, however, and the film focuses on twists and turns that might be more tired and worn-out than Bruce. If there are any grizzled, slightly old-fashioned cops out there without tragic pasts, please report to Hollywood immediately.
For the longest time, I've been defending director Jonathan Mostow's Terminator 3, which I'd thought had plenty of good action, a fun story and a knockout ending (the film certainly sits in the shadow of its predecessor, and it's probably unnecessary, but it's far more entertaining than it gets credit for). Aside from Mostow, Brancato and Ferris also wrote T3, and the fumbles of Surrogates feel like an attempt to recreate the formula. The film's one beam of light is that the action sequences are pretty good, but there are only two of them, and the rest of the direction ranges from mediocre to embarrassing (watching a rack-focus on Greer staring at a symbolic baseball glove actually made me want to groan out loud). As far as a "knockout ending" goes, the film's trailer gives too much away, although the information has been cleverly re-arranged; even the knowledge that the ad features some spoiler-riffic shots won't mean anything until they actually limp on-screen.
Surrogates is a movie that was made from the outside in. At all times it looks like it cost millions of dollars, and never once does that flashy gloss add up to anything creative or interesting. It's a bad sign when the most interesting thing about your movie is that it features actor Devin Ratray, the once and always Buzz McCallister from the Home Alone movies in a cameo as a computer guy. Ratray actually seems enthused to be in the movie, investing a little energy into his two-scene role. I guess he didn't get the memo: this one's just for show.
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