'Surrogates' is a robotic retread - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

'Surrogates' is a robotic retread

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Posted: Friday, September 25, 2009 5:09 pm | Updated: 12:50 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Review: "Surrogates" is itself a surrogate, a kind of stand-in for many of the sci-fi movies of the recent past: In it, you'll recognize the ideas of "Blade Runner," ''Minority Report" and even "WALL-E."

NEW YORK — "Surrogates" is itself a surrogate, a kind of stand-in for many of the sci-fi movies of the recent past: In it, you'll recognize the ideas of "Blade Runner," ''Minority Report" and even "WALL-E."

The Bruce Willis action flick opens with two murders — the first in years in a quasi-present day Boston. Technology has advanced enough so that nearly everyone has a surrogate — or "surry" for short. While reclining at home and plugged into a machine, people control a robotic version of themselves that safely maneuvers through the world in all of its slings and arrows.

The surrogates are a fantasy version of one's self — cosmetically perfect, thinner, younger and sometimes of the opposite sex. (This means, most importantly, that we have a blond Bruce Willis on our hands.)

Yes, like James Bond, John McClane has gotten the Ken doll treatment. For an aging action star, the pseudo Willis is almost a pun, a wink at moviegoers' need for stars that never age.

Willis is an FBI agent named Greer who, along with his partner (Radha Mitchell), is trying to solve the murders which, though committed on surrogates, also "liquefied" the brains of their human operators.

The police, too, have surrogates. When Greer — himself, not his doppelganger — rolls out of his bedroom after a long night as himself, the attractive surrogate of his wife (Rosamund Pike) sighs at the sight of her bald and wrinkly husband.

The surrogates are a clear metaphor for the virtual reality that's already upon us. It's a subject popular in Hollywood these days, given the recent Gerard Butler film "Gamer" and James Cameron's upcoming "Avatar."

Having a robotic stand-in has some obvious perks: Sexuality is less inhibited. If you fall, you don't scrape your elbows. And if your helicopter crashes, you don't die.

But this crime-less utopia is also a superficial wasteland, devoid of meaningfulness. As the investigation into the murders goes deeper, a plot to destroy the network becomes unfurled.

It has something to do with VSI, the company that created surrogates. (Its slogan: "Life ... only better.") One of the founders of VSI (James Cromwell) is having inventor's remorse. Some also choose to live in human-only areas; the leader of these renegades is played by a dreadlocked Ving Rhames.

"We're not meant to experience the world through a machine," Rhames' character announces. It's an ironic sentiment coming from a film projector beamed into a state-of-the-art movie theater.

"Surrogates," directed by Jonathan Mostow ("Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines"), is adapted from a graphic novel by Robert Venditti. If anyone hasn't noticed yet, graphic novels are — for better or worse — the new pulp fiction.

Like those hard-boiled novels of the '40s that Hollywood couldn't get enough of, graphic novels are fueling what once would have been called B-movies. At its best, that's what "Surrogates" is: a quality B-movie, pulpy and very much reflective of its times. The film isn't shy about its feelings about technology — it's time to unplug. It laments a culture that medicates pain away and has its head in virtual realms.

It's hard to miss the message or the nihilistic glee the film takes in seeing a world of robot surrogates suddenly collapse — a Second Life apocalypse that effectively forces society to unplug and step outside.

The Internet, though, is here to stay. Dreams of a computer-less society are as much fantasy as a blond Bruce Willis.

"Surrogates," a Walt Disney Co. release, is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, disturbing images, language, sexuality and a drug-related scene. Two stars out of four.

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