In the upside-down world of Surrogates, much of humanity interacts with the broader society outside of their homes solely through attractive robotic stand-ins and Bruce Willis has a full head of hair. His affectless detective character, Greer, not only sports a blond coiffure but also glistening, wrinkle-free skin that quickly identifies him as the “surrogate” of a more recognizably aged, cueballed Willis who is seen to be wirelessly operating the android from the comfort of a virtual reality recliner. Despite a tedious opening-credits exposition dump that endeavors to frame the rise of surrogacy as a cure-all for societal ills like crime and discrimination (no one needs to venture out, they can present any face to the world they want), director Jonathan Mostow never succeeds in selling the central conceit: that most flesh-and-blood humans would opt for a SIMS existence that demands virtual indoor imprisonment and results in an attendant decline in physical health in exchange for the illusion of runway looks, nor does he grab at a host of opportunities to tease out the inherent creepiness of a public square peopled by hot robots.
The legitimacy of the surrogate revolution is such a closed case in this society that the few detractors are corralled onto luddite preserves where they gather to hear the sermonizing of a long-haired doomsayer (Ving Rhames) whose secret is insultingly guessable from the jump and whose role in the film’s slowly unspooling murder plot is one of several bland puzzle pieces that offer no inherent rewards. A street criminal’s use of a mysterious pulse weapon that fries a surrogate’s brain, as well as that of its operator, sends Greer and partner Peters (Radha Mitchell, whose surrogate looks like Radha Mitchell) climbing the ladder of a thinly-sketched military-industrial complex, following clues that may or may not ultimately lead them to an eccentric surrogacy pioneer (James Cromwell) whose willingness to skirt the law is demonstrated by his utilizing of various surrogate bodies, including one of a little boy that he uses for traveling incognito. Unfortunately, each step taken in the rote, uninteresting investigation serves not to complicate the level of intrigue or heighten the suspense, but simply to further underscore how creaky the story’s foundation is, with one egregiously stupid example being the mid-film discovery that a fat computer nerd who works alone in a brain room is the sole human on Earth capable of tapping into and terminating the link between surrogates and their operators.
The opportunity to comment on the addictive nature of self-improvement or the oppressive potentiality of beauty is further lost by the scant attention paid to the film’s most intriguing relationship, between Greer and his icily beautiful, almond-eyed wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike), who works at a surrogate beauty salon where faces and other parts are hastily stripped off and reattached amid the girl-chatter, and who refuses to relinquish the upper hand in her arguments with Greer by facing him in the flesh. Maggie’s deep reliance on her surrogate identity leads to a scene of her entertaining other model-beautiful friends in the living room while she remains physically concealed behind the bedroom door, a potentially evocative moment that Mostow fumbles, demonstrating an uncharacteristic lack of subtlety here and throughout that suggests a diminishment of skills for the man who helmed the crackerjack kidnap thriller Breakdown. Breathlessly prodding the film on to its cheap-looking car smashups and demonstrations of superheroic feats-of-strengths, such as when a souped-up Peters effects giant, pogo-style leaps over cars and other obstacles in her path, Mostow succeeds only in delivering an action film that’s as artificial as its subjects, without even approximating the benefit of their surface beauty.