Virtual reality and artificial intelligence -- the two great progressive leaps forward that, to hear the movies tell it, will ultimately destroy the human race. Because of our inherent weaknesses, our need to feel special and not vulnerable and mortal, we will embrace these new technologies, taking them to extremes that will eventually enslave us -- mentally, physically, and emotionally. Article continues below
Six years ago, director Jonathan Mastow was dealing with another kind of future shock when he piloted the uneven Terminator trequel, Rise of the Machines. Now he's returned, staying within the speculative fiction realm to deliver the thought-provoking Surrogates. While it could use more subtext, it still delivers a surprisingly dense deconstruction on how hazardous getting lost inside technology can truly be.
When a young man is killed outside a nightclub, FBI agents Greer (Bruce Willis) and Peters (Radha Mitchell) are brought in to try and ID the body. Living in a world where robotic "others," or surrogates, stand in for real people (the home-bound users of these devices control their every move, thought, and reaction), such a death is extremely uncommon. When they discover that it is the son of the man who invented surrogacy, Dr. Canter (James Cromwell), they suddenly smell conspiracy.
All clues lead to a rogue element in this society -- actual human beings (known as "dreads") who, via their leader The Prophet (Ving Rhames) are promising revolution against the use of artificials. When Greer loses his avatar and must head out to investigate on his own, he soon discovers that the surrogate realm is far more complicated then he or anyone originally thought.
While it won't win any prizes for freshness, Surrogates is still a surprisingly strong entry into the ever-shrinking arena of serious sci-fi. Instead of turning everything into a slam bang spectacle of man vs. machine, Mastow takes the premise of Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele and mines it for as much allegorical ammunition as possible. Then, with the help of fellow screenwriting co-conspirators Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato (they all worked on T3) he makes us confront our all-too-obvious flaws and fears. In the world of Surrogates there is little crime, no disease, and no racism. Of course, everyone is also model perfect, excessively superficial, and hopelessly addicted to their alternative self. The implications of self-loathing and social engineering are endless.
It also helps that Willis and Mitchell are on hand as our guides. Both are very believable in their fake and real personas, especially our A-list action man. As he did in 12 Monkeys, Willis proves that he is brilliant as the psychologically damaged stranger in a strange land. His face registers so much hurt and despair that you instantly sympathize with his plight. Indeed, Mastow uses many extreme close-ups to show us how truly miserable members of this designer dystopia are. While their highly polished and perfected "others" live out their fantasy existences, they are holed up in their homes unable to interact on an honest and open level. Instead of being freed, they are even more trapped than before.
Sure there are elements that seem half-baked and wildly underdeveloped, including Rhames' Rastafarian revolutionary, and we would definitely like more than just an opening credits bit of background on the surrogate explosion (a Supreme Court reference comes out of left field and is then dropped). Still, with intelligent science fiction in scant supply these days and Mastow clearly toning down the hyperactive stuntwork to get to the true meaning of his movie, Surrogates acquits itself admirably. By the end, when Willis is making a decision that could determine the fate of every man, woman, and child on the planet, his anguish is very genuine indeed. And authenticity beats the false promises of the digitized domain every time.