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Surrogates (2009): **

Directed by Jonathan Mostow

It has all the makings of a fun time: a sci-fi premise, Bruce Willis, and a dastardly mystery involving the fate of the whole world. But it never really takes off. It's all just kinda there. Just kinda, y'know, "Meh."

There are several things I really did enjoy about the movie. I can't really credit the movie with the premise, because this film is based on a graphic novel of the same name. In this near future, almost everyone stays in darkened rooms at home and only goes out via robotic bodies that you control with your mind. They're your surrogate bodies: you see through their robotic eyes, sense through their synthetic skin, etc. This is several years into this technology, so the robots move and look extremely life-like.

That was one of my favorite things about the film. Even though the robots are very life-like, they're not exactly perfect. A very clever special effect was used on the surrogates to make their skin look, well, too perfect. Plastic. Fake. It was very subtle but very well done and gave everything a bit of a creep factor, like a photo of a person that has been airbrushed way too much so that you just know that's not what the person really looks like. And when we do see real people, the makeup artists did an extra job of putting freckles and blemishes and combination skin on them so the contrast is very strong, and you can kinda see why it would be an attractive idea to use a flawless version of yourself as your body.

There are some interesting ideas touched on here and there in the movie, such as people borrowing other people's surrogates in order to go incognito as it were. There are also people who have become so addicted to their surrogates that they keep using them even when they're in their own house alone with their spouse. There aren't any sidewalk cafes, since no one goes out to eat (the surrogates don't need it), but there are recharge booths all over the place in case your body runs low on battery. And also there is much less need for safety. If a speeding car crashes into you and destroys your surrogate body, you just lose your connection with it and wake up back at your house. It's inconvenient, sure, but insurance'll probably pay for most of it.

The problem with the movie is that it only just touches on all these ideas before hurrying along to a standard mystery plot that isn't nearly as interesting as the world that it exists in. I would love to see just a documentary about what this world is like, and all the logical extensions of living in a world full of robot bodies. But instead we get a plot that, while periodically interesting, just kinda... happens.

And that's the main problem with the film. It somehow never manages to be engaging, which I think can mostly be blamed on the director. There are some half-hearted attempts to get us to care about what's going on, but they never really work. Like the fact that Bruce Willis's character lost a child some indeterminate time before the movie begins—it just seems like a cheap, obvious ploy to get us to sympathize with the guy, and was much too much like the exact same situation in Minority Report, only not handled nearly so well.

But watching this movie made me realize one thing for sure: I think Bruce Willis should have been cast instead of Tom Cruise in about 99% of Tom Cruise movies. Especially movies like Minority Report and War of the Worlds. Tom Cruise is never believable as a down-and-out everyman who is just struggling to keep his head above water, whereas Bruce Willis was born to play that man and has done it again and again with great success.

The film also has some striking similarities to the recent (and much better, which should tell you a lot) movie I, Robot. Surrogates even cast James Cromwell as the man who made the surrogate technology possible, a role that is almost identical to the one in I, Robot where he played the man who made advanced robotics possible.

But neither Willis nor Cromwell are able to make us engage with their characters, the action scenes are never particularly thrilling, and the central plot (even though it reaches Earth-shaking proportions) never really seems to take off. It makes me wonder if a better director (like Prohais, you managed to make a Will Smith action movie like I, Robot into something much better than it should have been) could've made something better out of it, or if the fault lies inherently with the script. I dunno. I don't really care enough to wonder all that much, and that's really a shame.


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