Not unlike this year’s other half-baked sci-fi social commentary, District 9, Surrogates begins with a montage of thoroughly phony newsreel footage that forecasts the film’s coming ineptitude. Leadenly scripted clips depict talking heads, by turns skeptical and enthusiastic, reporting on the growing phenomenon of VSI, a major conglomerate that produces and mass-markets lifelike mechanical doubles — the titular surrogates — which can be operated from the isolated vantage of one’s own home. A succession of title-cards (scored to deep, self-consciously dramatic tones) count us down from ten, to five, to three years earlier, and finally to the “present” (which, the synopsis tells us, is actually a distant future), all the while trafficking in ample expository facts and figures fired at us in rapid succession. Thus, we’re aware of all the dumb contrivances in this film upfront: We learn that those who oppose the use of a surrogate, an obvious perversion of everyday living, are in fact in the minority; 90%(!) of earth’s population we’re told have resigned themselves to a life behind closed doors, settled into a station resembling a tanning bed (complete with sleepmask-like goggles) while, apparently, controlling their pseudo-self mannequins with the power of their minds. (Contrivance #1: Either one of Bono’s Live Aid charity events actually managed to end worldwide poverty or the filmmakers here don’t realize how utterly silly it is to suggest that 90% of the world’s population is able to afford such highly advanced technology, let alone the sheltered place from which to operate it.) Those few that choose a life without surrogacy (seen in newsreel footage picketing with signs that comically read: “No more robots”) are referred to as “dreads.” Is it a coincidence that the dread spokesmen, The Prophet, is a thoroughly dreadlocked Ving Rhames? The Prophet sermonizes via radio broadcasts to his seceded and marginalized people from a small camper in the woods, just outside of the uninhabitable dread slum—which slightly resembles the Johannesburg ghetto of District 9. Tensions boil at the borders of these “dread zones” and prejudices manifest between the humans (“meat-bags,” as they’re creatively referred to) and the surrogates, who live a life without fear of injury. That is, until a mysterious weapon capable of destroying a surrogate and simultaneously killing its secluded operator surfaces and causes a media frenzy.
The basic concept of Surrogates is as intriguing as District 9‘s, but, unfortunately, it’s also just as shamelessly derivative. Director Jonathan Mostow (who obviously has a hard on for humanoid machines; see: previous directorial outing Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) cribs from a wealth of sci-fi films both cliche-ridden and inspired. Two big names are rather obvious sources: Steven Spielberg’s exciting and thematically rich Minority Report (as well as, to a certain extent, its lesser cousin A.I. Artificial Intelligence) and that seminal (overrated) Ridley Scott opus Blade Runner. Virtually all the main points of this screenplay (adapted from a graphic novel which itself was published after the release of these obvious influences) can be traced to their origin in either Spielberg’s work or Scott’s—or, in some cases, both. Bruce Willis plays FBI agent Tom Greer; he’s cynical, he pines for his flesh-and-blood wife (who’s chosen a life of surrogacy), and he mopes over the loss of their child in a years-ago automobile accident. Greer resents the replican— er, excuse me, surrogate life style, and is seemingly the only one cracking under the pressure of living the synthetic/bed-ridden life of surrogacy. But the relative status quo of Greer’s neutered existence really gets topsy turvy when he finds himself at the center of a shocking (and completely ridiculous) conspiracy plot, which involves the fishy manufacturer VSI, their retired inventor (a sadly underutilized James Cromwell), his accidentally assassinated son, and the increasingly heated conflict between the dreads and the surrogates instigated by the fervent protests of The Prophet. In the end, of course, Greer is tasked with saving mankind from near-complete annihilation, and he must do this while in the body of perpetually-terrible-but-yet-never-out-of-work actress Radha Mitchell. (No, I don’t know why.)
Surrogates fails spectacularly due to its mediocre action sequences, its frequently speechified dialogue, and a plot that’s even more muddled than my brief synopsis implies. If District 9 falters because it’s derivative and its moral compass is insultingly mis-calibrated, then Surrogates is a defunct blockbuster because it too is derivative and insulting to the intelligence of anyone who demands more than tired genre tropes and the half-chuckles induced by the sight of Bruce Willis’ blond, wavy hairpiece — a rug that makes Tom Hanks’ ‘do in Da Vinci Code look stylish by comparison. Willis himself, ever the committed actor — like this country’s other deservedly bankable action-hero, Denzel Washington — exhibits raw emotional honestly, wringing more than can be expected from his paper-thin role. But even his wounded and convincingly paranoid performance can’t mask the inexcusable ineptitude of this dull, bland, thrill-less thriller.