Five years ago, James Cromwell appeared in the thoroughly mediocre “I, Robot” as a reclusive genius who invented a humanoid robot and delivered cryptic doomsday messages in the wake of his robot’s global success. In “Surrogates,” he reprises the role, seemingly word-for-word. Unfortunately, “Surrogates” isn’t a sequel. It’s simply one of the most unimaginative films to grace the silver screen in recent memory.
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That “Surrogates” is bland and unoriginal is neither surprising nor unique; science fiction has historically been a victim of self-imitation. But the degree to which “Surrogates” lifts its plot, characters, dialogue, heavy-handed morality and ever-convenient deus ex machina from other, better science-fiction films is unprecedented. If you ever find yourself watching “Surrogates,” you can still construct an entertaining cinematic experience for yourself by identifying how many scenes are stolen directly from “Minority Report” and “The Matrix.” Even the titular machines are ripoffs of the replicants from “Blade Runner”: robots who resemble humans perfectly and live among us as people.
One dead giveaway to a bad science-fiction film’s lack of precision is an ungodly vocabulary of fake words and slang that exist only in its fantasy bubble. You’ll hear drivel like “meatbags,” referring to humans who choose not to employ surrogates and “surry” referring to the robots themselves, because three syllables is just not cool enough.
Plot is of minimal importance in “Surrogates.” Roughly: Seven years ago, everyone started using human-looking robots they control with their minds to live their public lives for them. The first homicide in those seven years occurs when someone fries a pair of surrogates and, in so doing, kills the surrogates’ operators despite oft-cited fail-safe measures. It’s up to FBI Agent Tom Greer (Bruce Willis, doing his best impression of Barbie’s Ken) to find the culprit.
The opening credits reveal that one of the primary reasons for the popularity of surrogate use is its facilitation of an attractive physical appearance for its user. The resulting beauty, then, is bound to be shallow and meaningless. The filmmaker’s challenge is to address and confront this vapidity and let the viewer know that the constructed world is not a utopia, but a mess. Director Jonathan Mostow (“U-571”) simply ignores this responsibility. Bruce Willis’s character notes the emotional detachment brought about by the use of surrogates, but otherwise there is little internal conflict among the film’s characters.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the film’s overall weak presentation is that it refuses to answer any questions that the viewer might have regarding its constructed universe. For example, surrogates have not completely replaced human beings in the film’s world; real, organic people still exist as the surrogates’ chair-bound operators. But the film doesn’t examine the moments in their lives spent apart from their machines. Surely the human operators have to unplug from time to time to eat or use the bathroom, but the audience never sees this necessary break from virtual reality. The human characters just become as artificial as the surrogates, and as a result, the viewer has no emotional stake in each character’s decisions or outcome.
Everyone has, at some point, been frustrated by a cinematic near miss — a film that, while otherwise terrible, retained some tantalizingly positive qualities. Perhaps there was a compelling performance by one of the actors or a subplot of notable substance and depth or even something simple and aesthetic like a unique visual style. “Surrogates” is not one of those films. It is not the worst movie ever made. It will probably not be remembered as the worst movie of 2009. But it very well might be the least original movie you will see this year.