It was in 1920 that Karel Capek, a Czech writer, first used the word "robot" in a play called R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). His robots were humanoid machines that developed the capacity to love, so that they were human-like not only externally, but internally (at least as far as emotions are concerned) as well. The implication was that they were no longer machines but had become human like us. They were a new Adam and Eve.
Since that first appearance, robots of all kinds have invaded both fiction and the cinema screen. There have been threatening mechanicals and cute little droids. There have been servants to man and servants to man gone berserk, computer-like know-it-alls and dogged garbage cleaners. There have been diabolic humanoids and perfected human idealizations. The surrogates in the eponymous Jonathan Mostow film are robots from this last category.
In the not too distant future humans have taken to living vicariously through perfected humanoid surrogates controlled by their thoughts as they, themselves, lie prone in their homes. The surrogates are all good looking, all young, all physically strong and athletic, supermen and women. Surrogates work for their controllers; they play for them. They love for them. All interaction between people is between surrogates: even, it seems, between husband and wife. Life is beautiful for everyone in a world where everyone is beautiful and nothing seems beyond human capacity through the agency of these surrogates. But when suddenly two surrogates are destroyed by a secret weapon, and even more significantly, their controllers are killed as well, this utopian paradise begins to reveal some fissures.
Enter Bruce Willis as F.B.I. agent Tom Greer; it is up to him to find out what is going on. This is the set up of Mostow's Surrogates based on the comic series by Robert Venditti now available on DVD. Willis plays both a bald grizzled human version of himself and his wavy haired surrogate, and he plays them both with more or less the same kind of intense commitment we have come to expect from the hero of the Die Hard franchise. He is aided by Radha Mitchell as his surrogate F.B.I. agent partner. Ving Rhames does a supporting turn as the dreadlocked leader of a sect of surrogate refuseniks and James Cromwell shows up as the discarded inventor of the surrogates. In general all their performances are workmanlike, if not award-winning.
Indeed, workmanlike is an apt description of the whole film. The plot is perhaps overly complex. Too often action sequences—car chases, crashes, surrogates leaping onto roofs of buses—substitute for dramatic content. Nevertheless the film is effectively paced and beautifully photographed. And if its themes are not as compellingly elaborated as they might be, they are still worth thinking about. After all the idea of a world in which we can all be the beautiful people we want to be and do all the exciting things we wish we could deserves some consideration. Although one might well wonder how it is that in a world capable of inventing surrogates, the surrogates still have to get around in cars and buses. A little more futuristic thinking might have been welcome.
Still, if you missed it in the multiplex, Surrogates is certainly worth a spot in your Netflix queue (if only to see Bruce Willis with hair). Besides, the DVD includes a commentary by director Mostow, and a well done music video—"I Will Not Bow" by Breaking Benjamin—featuring a montage of scenes from the movie.