The case of the fake people

Imagine a world where you be whatever or whoever you want to be, never getting older or showing signs of illness. There’s just one catch: it won’t really be you.

In 2017, most humans live in near-isolation, never having to leave their homes thanks to their remote-controlled “surrogates”, hyper-realistic robots that are usually designed to be perfected versions of their owners. Originally created for disabled people by technological genius Lionel Canter (James Cromwell), their appeal spread like wildfire. The wide use of surrogates has near eliminated discrimination, due to their aesthetic ideals, as well as disease, fear and crime, as any damage sustained by surrogates does not affect their owners. Until now.

Agent Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) and partner Agent Jennifer Peters (Radha Mitchell), using their own surrogates, investigate the first murder in years, which has a particularly disturbing element: an attack on the surrogates led to a fatal aneurysm for the human operators. As the deaths mount, the case implicates the Dreads, an anti-surrogate movement of “meatbags” (surrogate-less humans) led by the charismatic Prophet (Ving Rhames). Meanwhile, Greer is feeling increasingly isolated from his wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike), a surrogate-addict who refuses to discuss the recent death of their young son.

Whereas most movies would be let down by robotic, stilted acting, here it is largely a virtue. The ever-craggy Bruce Willis artfully tackles both his surrogate and real-self roles, and is unsurprisingly more comfortable as the latter, serving as the audience’s main link to the disconnected world. Silent Hill’s Radha Mitchell and Bond girl Rosamund Pike both have a touch of the Stepford about them, but still manage to convey deep emotions despite their unnerving blonde perfection. James Cromwell (I, Robot) is a little under-used, but his patrician tones perfectly suit his role. The freckled, dreaded and husky Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction) makes for a believable cult figure in the growing backlash against surrogates.

The premise of Surrogates, which is based on a comic book series, is immediately captivating and realistic thanks to a world where the masses plug in and surrender their souls using machines. Today, billions are willing to share their most intimate thoughts via Facebook, Twitter and blogs, carefully composing a virtual personality for themselves in the process. We depend on the Internet for so many things, such as research, communication and escapism. Games like the Sims are like the ultimate dollhouse, a private site in which to play out your fantasies, while virtual world Second Life has become the primary life for many, hosting weddings and offering money-making opportunities. Using humanoid machines to live your life for you simply seems to be the next logical step.

This killer concept is handled with aplomb, shying away from heavy-handedness, and allowing the audience to ponder both the pros and the cons of the technology, although the film’s main stance becomes evident early on. In return for constant fantasies, surrogate-users have sacrificed much of their privacy, allowing Big Brother to watch their every move and intervene when necessary – something naturally never contested by crime-attempting operators.

The execution of ideas is aided by impeccable visual effects, such as the plasticky sheen of the surrogates’ skin and their total stillness when shut down, which effectively contrasts with the world-weariness of their flawed owners, further desiccated due to their over-use of surrogates. A seemingly suicidal jump by one surrogate becomes a graceful dive that shows off superhuman abilities. There are also predictable, slightly puerile visual gags, such as when the operator of a sexy blonde woman is revealed to be an obese, balding man, or a hunky black surrogate has a name-tag suggesting a nerdy, Jewish scientist.

The film also boasts several high-octane action sequences, as you’d expect from Terminator 3 director Jonathan Mostow, and an intriguing twisty plot that completely untangles within the last 15 minutes. All the film’s elements are pulled together by the human pathos that underlies the technology, like the loss of a child or profound loneliness.

Surrogates is a neat, zippy film, with relevant ideas, plenty of action and a little mystery – everything you would want from a Bruce Willis blockbuster. Don’t forget to switch off your phone. you might even want to leave it off for awhile afterwards, and indulge in some real connecting.

*** (THREE STARS)

Surrogates (2009, Touchstone Pictures, 88 minutes)
Directed by Jonathan Mostow
Produced by David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman, Max Handelman, Elizabeth Banks
Written by John Brancato, Michael Ferris (screenplay), Robert Venditti (story)
Starring Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, Boris Kodjoe, James Cromwell, Ving Rhames

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