Taking a film audience into a near future version of our world, a near future with one or two major differences just fine. At least, it's fine provided that the differences are something the audience can understand. If the difference doesn't resonate, if the audience can't figure out why we as a society would ever travel down that road, the filmmakers have just made their task for the rest of the piece that much more difficult. Thus, the Jonathan Mostow directed and Bruce Willis starring Surrogates instantly gets off on the wrong foot, and the mistake is one that the film never recovers from.
The basic concept that the movie builds itself upon is that in the very near future we will be able to buy robots that not only look and feel human, but that we can control as well. Humans, according to the film, will choose to live their lives via these robots which are known as surrogates, people will sit at home all day long and let these surrogates go to work for them, relax for them, buy clothes for them, do everything for them.
Anyone who has ever seen any science fiction movie would tell you that surrogates are a bad idea. The film's opening does its best to explain how we the technology evolved in a short period of time (it apparently took fewer than 14 years for our society to be completely altered), but never puts forward any sort of convincing explanation as to why we would travel down that road. Might it be nice to be 25 and supermodel attractive for a little while? Absolutely, but the idea that we would all choose to live in such a body forever while our real ones stink and sweat in a chair in a dark room somewhere simply doesn't ring true.
Surrogates puts forward the idea that in such a world a small but incredibly vocal and radical minority would choose to leave society, putting themselves on semi-secluded reservations where they would not only not allow surrogates, but not allow any sort of machine in general – except, of course, guns. Though such a group of radicals is essential for the story of the film, just as the suggestion of what our society as a whole might become, the idea of how the radicals would be organized is just as foolish.
The film takes this skewed and wholly unconvincing world view and adds a couple of FBI agents hot on the trail of someone who has a device that can kill both a surrogate and the human controlling it at the same time – an idea heretofore deemed impossible. At the opening of the film the device is used to murder the son of the man who invented surrogates, as the son was borrowing one of the father's robots.
Bruce Willis, as one might expect, plays the main FBI agent on the case. Tom Greer (Willis) quickly finds himself caught up in a world of secrets and lies, one where the military, the federal government, and the company which created the surrogates have all been keeping secrets. He must figure out whether it was Lionel Canter (James Cromwell), the inventor of surrogates; the leader of the anti-surrogate group, The Prophet (Ving Rhames); the current corporate bosses at VSI, the company that makes surrogates; or someone else behind the device and the murder.
If the basic construct of a world with surrogates is one the audience can't quite grasp, the murder mystery itself, with its corporate, government, rebel faction, and military angles is one that everyone will instantly recognize. The possible conspiracy theories that the murder investigation lead to may be as silly as the idea of surrogates, but there is certainly nothing new in them. And that too is a disappointment.
For a significant portion of the film, Greer conducts the investigation in his surrogate body, which, while understandable in the world the film has built, doesn't work dramatically. It may make for some pretty visually exciting action sequences – and does here – but it doesn't create any sort of dramatic tension.
It is like sending Superman after a two-bit robber, Spider-Man after a mugger, or, perhaps more aptly, a Terminator after a wholly average man on the street. If Terminator had made Schwarzenegger the good guy, and Michael Biehn the bad guy, it would have been a far less interesting film, once Schwarzenegger's Terminator character became good in the films, he had to be pitted against an even better Terminator on the evil side for there to be the necessary tension and drama. Mostow, who directed Termiantor 3: Rise of the Machines, ought to understand that. The film does get better when Greer ends up going out in public without his surrogate body, but the basic issues of the foolish world the film inhabits and the absolutely bland conspiracy theory investigation never improves.
The film is far better in its smaller moments, when it focuses on Greer's personal life and the disconnect he has with his wife, Maggie (Roasmund Pike). The couple have lost their son in an accident and have done a relatively poor job of holding their marriage together. Maggie has trouble living with her actual body in the real world following the incident, choosing to insulate herself from possible pain instead.
Were it focused on more, while the couple's difficulty wouldn't make society's decision to live as surrogates understandable, it would ask far more interesting moral and ethical questions. Those questions, were they asked, would be fascinating to explore. Mostow and company, however, choose to not travel down that road, opting for the far more mundane mystery and action sequences instead.
The extra features on the new Blu-ray release include deleted scenes and a featurette which looks at how close we are scientifically to being able to create surrogates (it too fails to make a compelling case for why society as a whole would choose to live that way). There is also a piece on how the graphic novel the film is based came about and eventually made it to the big screen; a music video, "I Will Not Bow," by Breaking Benjamin, and an audio commentary track by Mostow.
The Blu-ray release features an impressive 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Some of the action sequences are overly loud, but those same scenes also feature great bass, and superb use of the surrounds. Dialogue doesn't suffer even in the loud scenes – it feels as though the dialogue has been goosed equally with the effects. With the amount of detail and clearness of the image, it is easy to pick the surrogate out of the crowd (the surrogates have a plastic-y sheen to them). The level of detail extends beyond faces however, and the image features a great deal of depth and good black levels.
Mostow may have created a beautiful world with Surrogates, and he may do quite well in general at depicting robots covered with real and/or fake skin, but what he hasn't done here is to create a future that is in any way believable. Only a fool would think that science and technology did not have the potential to become a burden, and because of that it seems highly unlikely that humanity would ever wish to follow down the road Mostow and company have laid out in the film. And, without a compelling reason being given, the mundane mystery with which we are presented is that much more disappointing.