Surrogates plays like a substitute for a crime thriller. To all outward appearances it is a science-fiction whodunit, but upon closer examination, the characters and plot are underwritten and obvious, and the entire production hinges solely on the charisma of Bruce Willis.
In the future, people will be able to plug in and experience life through robotic surrogates that venture out into the real world and interact with other mechanical doppelgangers. Some people rarely, if ever, unplug from their artificially beautiful alter egos. But somebody develops a weapon that can kill a surrogate’s user with a virus that defeats the safety protocols and liquefies the brain of the operator. The first surrogate we see killed is operated by the son of the man who invented surrogates, Dr. Canter (James Cromwell). The murder is investigated by FBI agents Greer (Bruce Willis) and Peters (Radha Mitchell), who uncover two key facts: Canter was forced out of the company that manufactures surrogates, and the military has been doing secret research into surrogates.
The “who” in the whodunit is dispensed with quickly, because killer’s identity does not matter; what matters is who sent him and why. But that question is also way too easy to guess – I had the baddie pegged in no time. (I was also laughing that the fearsome mega-weapon resembled a dustbuster.) And the “shocking twist” that the rabid anti-surrogate crusader was himself a robot surely came as no surprise to a public weary of “family values” politicians busted for infidelity. I was annoyed waiting for the detectives to twig to the obvious – never a good sign. Even Willis himself looked a little bored, and invested Detective Greer with nothing beyond standard Willis world-weariness and a squint of concern/disgust. (At least this movie gave him a reason to wear a silly wig.) Yes, he’s getting too old for this shit. Mitchell seemed distracted, as if her mind was somewhere else while her body was in this film. Whatever happened to the appealing actress who breathed so much life into the scrappy pilot in the vastly superior Pitch Black?
But beyond the translucently thin plot, my biggest problem with Surrogates was a failure of world-building. The movie neglected to show us how a society dominated by robotic surrogates would function. With the vast majority of the population using mechanical avatars, who is doing the menial labor of keeping the world turning? Are we supposed to believe that people are using surrogates to mop floors and empty trash bins? The humans at home still have to eat, so have sit-down restaurants dwindled in favor of take-out? Now, it’s entirely possible (even probable) that the planet is populated by sexy janitors, but why not show this? And what about the Third World? Are the planet’s poor “condemned” to live life in person? The major cities are mentioned as having surrogates, but what about the subsistence farmers out there? We see soldiers – derisively called G.I. Joes – but are there still wars over natural resources like oil? With a presumed reduction in demand for consumer products, how does the economy function? All these questions bothered me as I watched, and took me out of the movie. These points could have been addressed quickly and easily, but instead, we are left with a film full of unrealized ideas and populated by characters that are, unironically, robots.