Movie Review: 'Surrogates' May Bore Even Die-Hard Bruce Willis Fans

The wig is up: Bruce Willis.
The wig is up: Bruce Willis. (Stephen Vaughan - Touchstone Pictures)
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By Dan Kois
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 25, 2009

In the glorious future of "Surrogates," Bruce Willis's new science-fiction adventure, the dirty work of living has been turned over to humanoid robots. Citizens recline comfortably in their homes, linked remotely to younger, stronger, sexier versions of themselves, who work and play and do all the things that humans once used to do. It's an entrancing vision: In the future, we can let our surrogates take risks for us, do our jobs for us. . . . Maybe we'll even be able to let them watch cruddy Bruce Willis movies in our place!

As mechanical as the machines at the heart of its conceit, "Surrogates" takes an interesting idea -- the triumph of technological convenience over grimy, workaday life -- and buries it under clumsy exposition, unconvincing action sequences and a by-the-numbers conspiracy plot. Willis plays FBI agent John Greer; at home he looks like the grizzled, bald Willis of old, but on the streets of Boston his robot surrogate -- played by a well-pancaked Willis with a truly unfortunate hairpiece -- tries to solve Boston's first homicide in years. (Someone's invented a weapon that can kill a surrogate's operator by frying his brain before his robot can shut down.)

Alongside his partner (Radha Mitchell), Willis ferrets out a plot that includes the leader of the anti-surrogate movement (Ving Rhames, employed solely for his basso profundo) and the long-disappeared inventor of the machines (James Cromwell).

All this occurs in a world populated solely by shiny, improbably beautiful surrogates played by made-up, improbably beautiful actors. But that points to one unsolvable problem of "Surrogates": On a scene-by-scene basis, it's awfully monotonous, given that almost every line is spoken by mediocre actors playing robots who are themselves mediocre actors.

Willis does his best to rough up the movie, but it's a lost cause; Greer is a gloomy, subdued version of the typical Willis action hero, saddled with a distant wife (Rosamund Pike), a dead son and a melancholy that Willis struggles to convey. Director Jonathan Mostow's action set pieces, poorly cut and filled with B-grade special effects, don't help. Even the scene where Greer's boss takes away Greer's badge and gun -- a scene played by so many chiefs in so many cop movies with vein-popping histrionics -- is, in "Surrogates," a dull affair.

The movie only comes alive in a few throwaway moments, when its screenwriters back off their ponderous plot and let a few big ideas creep in. As Greer and an Army officer discuss the murder case, we see behind them hundreds of soldiers hooked up to combat surrogates in a faraway field of battle. When one of the robots is destroyed, the soldier is given a new surrogate, a new life -- a queasy vision of war as a video game that seems, in an age of unmanned drones and networked combat, not so far away at all.

Surrogates (104 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, disturbing images, language, sexuality and a drug-related scene.

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