[Screen It]

(2009) (Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell) (PG-13)

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Sci-fi/Thriller: In a world where robotic surrogates stand in for real people who control them via remote neurological connections, an FBI agent must go out into the real world as he tries to solve a number of highly unusual murders where the death of such surrogates also results in the demise of their owners.
Thanks to the pioneering research work done by scientist Lionel Canter (JAMES CROMWELL), most people now experience the world through and are represented by more perfect, robotic surrogates of themselves. Controlled by neurological connections when the users are positioned in stem chairs, the surrogates, built by the VSI corporation, do most of the work while also allowing their owners to live out fantasies or simply escape the realities of their lives.

Maggie Greer (ROSAMUND PIKE) is one of those people, as she escapes into her alternate persona as a way of dealing with the loss of her son, while her FBI agent husband, Tom (BRUCE WILLIS), immerses himself in his work alongside his agency partner, Jennifer Peters (RADHA MITCHELL). They normally don't have much to do, what with crime and other social ills nearly absent from everyday life, but that changes when a hitman, Miles Strickland (JACK NOSEWORTHY), kills a surrogate, resulting in the death of the user.

Not only has that never occurred before, but the victim just so happens to be the son of Canter who was fired from his company years earlier and no longer is a fan of their work. The same holds true for groups of human protestors led by The Prophet (VING RHAMES) who believes surrogates are an abomination. With all of that potentially involved, and with the aid of human network controller Bobby (DEVIN RATRAY), the FBI agents start their investigation under the supervision of their boss, Andrew Stone (BORIS KODJOE).

But when Tom breaks the rules while pursuing Strickland and ends up losing his surrogate, he's suspended. From that point on, he must then go out into the real world for himself as he tries to get to the bottom of what's really occurring, all while hoping to reconnect with his estranged and emotionally distant wife.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
I always chuckle when I see married couples who are simultaneously logged on in the social media site Facebook. In the old, pre-FB days that would have meant them sitting together at the computer, with one doing the typing. Now, however, the dual marital presence means they're on different computers, but often in the same house or maybe even room.

That raises the question of whether they communicate via online messaging rather than old fashioned talking. Of course, that would seem a natural extension of their kids doing the same with text messaging their friends who are seated next to them. Considering that, email and online game playing, people are probably going to eventually forget how to speak aloud.

All of which raises the question of what's the next step in that direction, not to mention what the solution might be for progressively less flesh and blood, face to face interaction with others. The answer could be android representations of ourselves, with sensory receptors sending tactile "feelings" back to us at home. In the gaming and Internet worlds, those are known as avatars, and the robotic versions would simply be a natural progression of their manifestation and use.

It's a fascinating if not particularly novel idea in both the scientific world and various outlets of fiction. Alas, the inclusion of such robotic extensions as a central plot device in the sci-fi dramatic thriller "Surrogates" doesn't result in a terrific, let alone good film, despite the intentions. Instead, and similar to those avatars looking like but not quite being the real thing, the film comes off as an imitation of a real thriller -- not exactly as thought-provoking, engaging and/or exciting as it should be.

Based on a little-known graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele (that's been adapted to the big screen by John Brancato & Michael Ferris), the film marks the second time director Jonathan Mostow has delved into the storytelling world of advanced robotics. The first was back in 2003 when the filmmaker set out to resurrect the old Arnie the Governator series with "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines." Like that effort, this one's intended as a cautionary tale about the perils of too much and far too advanced technology.

Yet, while the robots in that film were sentient, here they're merely puppets, active only when controlled by their users back in their "stem chairs." Using that, neurological connections to the robotic surrogates allow the users to carry out their jobs while elsewhere (holy telecommuting!) and/or live out their fantasies and such without really doing the deed, whatever that might entail.

In the usual Hollywood move where similarly themed films are released in a short span, this offering follows closely on the heels of "Gamer," but viewers are also likely to be reminded of "The Matrix" and similar flicks where the death of the doppelganger also results in the demise of the original person.

Here, that puts two FBI agents (played by Bruce Willis, purposefully bad rug and all, and Radha Mitchell) on what turns out to be a murder case. The twist, that isn't remotely surprising, is that they're also surrogates, albeit ones with super-robotic powers that come to light when Brucey boy chases after a suspect, complete with all sorts of amazing (and literal) leaps and bounds. Throw in a revenge motive, corruption, conspiracy and a subplot of parents dealing with grief in their own way, and the result is supposed to be an exciting and even touching sci-fi thriller.

The only problem is the final product doesn't deliver on those or other positive and/or desired adjectives as everything feels both askew and, ironically, artificial. The big issues are that the film yields few surprises (the revelations are far too easy to predict) and simply isn't imaginative enough with the premise (things the original "Matrix" flick excelled at).

There have been rumors that Willis and Mostow didn't get along on the set, and while we can neither confirm nor dispense with them, the actor does seem less than fully engaged on the screen. Some may argue that's intentional, what with him playing a robotic surrogate of himself, but the double is dispensed with early on, leaving the flesh and blood version to finish things out, and the boredom, disengagement or whatever-the-case might be aura doesn't ever go away.

As a result, the viewer isn't really left with any reason to root for his success, whether that's solving the case or getting back with his estranged wife (Rosamund Pike) who's physically not far away (just in the other room), but virtually is a long ways off.

Most movies involving robots as various sorts of societal cure-alls are always cautionary tales, be that regarding advanced entertainment ("Westworld"), marital bliss ("The Stepford Wives") or the end of the world ("The Terminator" flicks), and "Surrogates" is no exception.

While it isn't a horrible film, it just can't escape feeling that it's an artificial version of the real thing, where the faux elements stand out just enough to point that out to viewers who will likely discuss such matters with others via Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere rather than in person. Let's just hope they're not seated next to their friends or spouses while doing so. The film rates as a 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 23, 2009 / Posted September 25, 2009

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