Trying to lure the self-hypnotized gamer nation out into the world to see a dystopian popcorn flick that paints Sims-style living as the end of civilization might seem like a fool’s errand. And yet here comes “Surrogates,” a slick sci-fi number that presents a future in which flawless, hot-bodied, chicly dressed synthetic humans do the everyday living/working/playing, their every action neurally controlled by their real-human counterparts, a risk-averse population of shut-ins who’ve gone to seed. An interesting idea, but unfortunately, the film’s narrative and emotional engine operate as mechanically as the titular, dead-eyed glamazoids.
“Surrogates” stars Bruce Willis as Tom, who in the light of day is a nattily dressed, expressionless robot cop (with hair!) partnered with a model-licious fellow “surrie” (Radha Mitchell) but whose homebound version is a stubbly, heartbroken man unable to connect to his surrogate-addicted wife (Rosamund Pike) or get over the death of their son some years earlier. Human Tom must face the world, though, when his surrogate is destroyed chasing down a man responsible for a criminal rarity: actual human murders.
It all points to a conspiracy entangling the ubiquitous corporation behind surrogacy, the wheelchair-bound inventor of the technology (James Cromwell), and an anti-robot, save-humanity protest movement led by a dreadlocked figure named the Prophet (a hammy Ving Rhames). At the heart of it all is a mysterious weapon that when fired at a surrogate acts as the nastiest kind of computer virus, destroying its supposedly untouchable flesh-and-blood user too.
While the notion holds promise, the execution is strictly campy and adrenaline-driven. Director Jonathan Mostow (“Breakdown,” “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines”) is a little too enamored with all the shiny, colorful surfaces and propulsive action (successfully captured by cinematographer Oliver Wood) to ever develop a truly creepy speculative-future vibe from the programmatic screenplay by John Brancato and Michael Ferris (based on a little-known graphic novel). The question of what surrogate-reliant warfare would mean, or who might make up a marginalized, no-tech protest community, are rarely explored beyond plot usefulness. Blink and you’ll miss, for example, the trenchant visual that artificial soldiers, replaced quickly on the battlefield and operated from high-tech game rooms, are kept faceless and featureless.
Also left unexplored are the emotional possibilities of a recluse forced to interact with a teeming society of fembots and himbots. Willis, usually a better actor than his recent material, gets one mini-scene emoting man-among-mannequins street panic when Tom first ventures outside after years as a hermit. But then it’s a guns-and-chases race to the ticking-bomb end.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, disturbing images, language, sexuality and a drug-related scene
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: In wide release