‘Surrogates’: Waking Life, By Kurt Loder

Bruce Willis in a sci-fi flick with a heart.

In “Surrogates,” nobody goes to work anymore, or even leaves the house much. Instead, lifelike robo-mannequins are dispatched to undertake the day’s business while their operators sit at home with headsets and watch. These surrogates tend toward whitebread perfection — blonder of hair, bluer of eye and hotter of bod than their owners — but they can also be purchased in any race or gender desired. Imagine the benefits. Cops and combat soldiers no longer need risk their real lives. Communicable diseases fade away, along with various sorts of prejudice. (That hot number your surry just picked up in a club might actually be some leering lardo sprawled at home on his living-room sofa.) Life — or at least “life” — is good.

The movie makes significant alterations (mainly of gender and motivation) in the Robert Venditti comic books on which it’s based; but these changes, for a change, actually enhance the story. Bruce Willis plays Greer, a veteran FBI agent, and Radha Mitchell is Peters, his partner. Like everyone else, they send their pretty, glazed surrogates to the office every day, while their original selves — older and more life-worn — monitor the action remotely. Their latest case involves the murder — well, the destruction — of a pair of sexy young surrogates by a killer using a mysterious weapon that also managed to snuff out the surrys’ operators at home. (According to the manufacturer, a slickly sinister enterprise called VSI, this was supposed to be impossible.)

The two agents soon become involved with Canter (James Cromwell), the shadowy creator of surrogate technology, and a dreadlocked anti-surry firebrand called the Prophet (Ving Rhames), who’s determined to eradicate it. There’s also a hotshot programmer named Bobby (Devin Ratray), whose cutting-edge software could save the ever-darkening day, and an FBI honcho named Stone (Boris Kodjoe) who’s even more unlike what he seems than is usual in this shifting world. The investigation takes an unexpected twist after a rousing, hell-bent chase in which Greer’s surrogate is destroyed, forcing Greer himself to take over the case in the flesh.

Director Jonathan Mostow (“Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines”) knows how to stage maximum-damage action sequences (with pronounced “Terminator” overtones), and he’s added some cute passing details not present in the comics, like the surrogate recharge booths we glimpse at one point on a street corner. But he never roils the story’s despairing mood for standard FX uproar. Greer’s melancholy home life is movingly conveyed (his aging wife, played by Rosamund Pike, stays locked in her bedroom while her forever-young surrogate keeps the disconsolate Greer company); and there’s a wonderful moment when Greer’s own surrogate returns home after a taxing day, pours a drink, then brings it to the real Greer, still zoned out next to his operating gear, before retiring to his surry storage cabinet like a self-hanging suit.

Willis is allowed to act in this movie (he’s not just another action android), and, as usual when given the opportunity, he’s touchingly effective. His Greer is a man slowly waking from a terrible dream. He’s beginning to register the horror of the surrogate phenomenon — the way in which people have eagerly outsourced their humanity to high-tech automatons (there’s also a new line of surrys in the works for children), and the impossibility of ever knowing who you’re really dealing with in the world of surrogate interaction. The movie is a mystery thriller filled with sleek computerized doppelgängers, but it’s really about the pleasures of the flesh.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Surrogates.”

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