Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Surrogates develops into a glossy thriller that looks and acts just like the real thing."

Can you imagine a world in which everybody lives through an artificial body? The chances are that you've already tried it, by way of an online role playing game or the likes of Second Life.

In the world of Surrogates this system has gone one step further, with people staying at home and using remote-controlled androids to move around in the physical world. This means that they don't have to worry about pain or injury - they can take more risks and have more fun. In fact, it's all fun and games until somebody loses an eye. Then our cop heroes - Agent Greer (Bruce Willis) and Agent Peters (Radha Mitchell) - discover that the owner of the eye has suffered a neural overload which has liquidised his brain. Somebody has discovered a weapon which can be aimed at a surrogate and can kill a real person. It's their job to hunt it down before all hell breaks loose.

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Opening with a well-presented montage of material which mixes real world developments in the field of robotics with predicted developments taking place over the next 14 years, Surrogates develops into a glossy thriller that looks and acts just like the real thing. Bruce Willis is its human operator, effortlessly endearing as always. Though this character is little different from those we've seen him play before, he works well - he's not afraid to show us emotional as well as physical fragility, and the film plays cleverly with our sympathies - when Agent Greer is hunting a suspect from the relative safety of his surrogate body we get references to the Terminator franchise which really make us feel for his opponent. Later scenes in which he struggles to get past more than one sort of artificial barrier to communicate with his wife are touchingly played, though we don't get the same sense of the depth of their distress at having lost a son that we did from the identical situation in Minority Report, and it might have been wiser for the film to steer clear of that parallel. This is not the only place where playing too close to type gets it in trouble.

There are a lot of genuinely interesting issues surrounding the use of surrogates like this, and the scriptwriters have made a fair effort to explore them, even if they handle issues relating to disability somewhat clumsily. Unfortunately they have been rather less successful when it comes to developing a sound and convincing underlying plot structure.

For most of the film it's entertaining enough to watch Greer running from A to B, even if we can see that he's being led by the nose, and the various double-crosses are sufficiently intriguing; but towards the end, when the big revelations come, it all starts to fall apart. Far too often characters turn out to be just what viewers familiar with this sort of movie would expect, and the central scheme doesn't ring true - the conspiracy is too shallow, the motivation of Greer's adversary doesn't add up emotionally. Everything is then tied up far too smugly, generalising over the obvious messy consequences of Greer's decisions. This reads rather like the earlier suggestion that use of surrogates has got rid of racism and sexism, though Greer's early reaction to a victim shows that prejudice is alive and well, just displaced by the fact that it's harder to get to know people.

From a technical point of view, the film is beautifully made. It's intriguing to see CGI used to make actors look less real, and the make-up is also very good, creating 'perfect' surrogates many of which still resemble their rougher-looking operators. Setting the film such a short way into the future has made things easier for the wardrobe department, and there's some interesting design work on display here, though much of it looks rather conservative in light of how people tend to dress their online avatars even today. Nevertheless, Surrogates provides an interesting take on the surrealism of Hollywood itself, with Willis looking 'normal' and yet bizarre in a blond toupee.

Ultimately, though you'll probably find Surrogates an entertaining thrill ride and pleasing to look at, you're unlikely to feel much of a connection to it by the end. It seems too hastily, carelessly structured, too artificial, and without enough real meat.

Reviewed on: 25 Sep 2009
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In a world where everyone operates through artificial bodies, two cops investigate a murder with real human victims.
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Stephen Carty **1/2

Director: Jonathan Mostow

Writer: Michael Ferris, John D Brancato

Starring: Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, Boris Kodjoe, James Francis Ginty, James Cromwell, Ving Rhames

Year: 2009

Runtime: 88 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US


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