After directing the third entry in the Terminator franchise, Jonathan Mostow returns for the second time in his career to a story about humanoid characters with robotic skeletons. The film is set in 2017, when most humans experience the world using idealised robotic versions of themselves called “surrogates”, which they control remotely from the safety of their own homes. Crime rates have plummeted (though it’s unclear why), and offices are populated by these avatars, which can simply be shut down at their desks at the end of the day (which must be creepy for the cleaners). Bruce Willis plays a cop investigating the murders of several people killed when their surrogates are destroyed.

It’s an interesting premise, and feels suitably relevant to our times... I personally haven’t left the house for three weeks in case I miss something on Twitter. The surrogates themselves are envisioned as wrinkle-free, youthful versions of the actors playing them, which may make sense on paper but often elicits giggles on screen: Willis’s surrogate is particularly odd, a sort of Heat magazine cover version of the actor complete with fake tan, digitally airbrushed skin and a blond toupee; surely the first time a Bruce Willis hairpiece has been integral to the plot.

Part of the problem with Surrogates is it constantly reminds you of other, better films: the endless rows of robots in the manufacturing plant (I, Robot); the lead character haunted by the loss of a child (Minority Report); the prejudice shown towards the non-humans by some militant human characters (I, Robot, District 9)... they even take an actor from I, Robot, James Cromwell, and cast him in an almost identical part here as the mysterious scientist behind the technology. Unfortunately this film is built on a stale whodunit plot that relies too often on laboured *GASP! He was really a surrogate!* type “revelations”.

The garishly colourful vision of the near future feels lazy and derivative, you can almost hear the conversations Mostow had with his art department: “How can we make this night club seem more futuristic?” “Um... give that actor crazy hair and a plastic tie?” “BINGO!”.

Dialogue too often strays into the realm of the unintentionally funny. It’s hard to suppress chuckles when lines like “According to pathologists, their brains were liquefied in their skulls!” or “Have you any idea how a surrogate’s head could explode from the inside?” are delivered straight faced and irony free. (My theory on the latter question - peanut-sized grenades inserted via the nostrils - turned out to be incorrect).

But none of this would matter if the action scenes delivered. So it’s a shame that Mostow, who showed some flair for action in previous films, drops the ball again. A couple of half-hearted chases augmented by some not too impressive CGI refuse to quicken the pulse, and the sight of a tanned, blond-wigged Willis, minus an arm and spurting green “blood”, leaping around acrobatically just looks, well, absurd. And you know you’re in trouble when the climax of your action film involves a digital countdown that - spoiler alert - ends on one second.

I fear the film’s denouement, featuring thousands of blank-faced surrogates suddenly collapsing, is likely to be missed by many viewers who did the same thing in their seats half an hour previously. As the obligatory soft-rock song played over the closing credits, I realised this was the second time this week that I’d watched an ageing Bruce surrounded by perma-tanned fakes... but Strictly Come Dancing was more coherently plotted.

Official Site
Surrogates at IMDb

Justin Bateman is a Screenjabber contributor

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