Movie News & Reviews

'Surrogates' showcases Willis, smart plot

Much as I love them, most action blockbusters are so stupid that assoon as I get home from one I have to go to my bookshelf, get outMoby Dick, fall asleep, and drool all over page iii.

-- Times, theaters.

I'm just about convinced "blockbuster" is actually the description forwhat they do to your head. Yet like chewy chocolate chip cookies,parachuteless skydiving and other dubiously healthy pursuits, I'maddicted to them. I'm literally watching one as I write this. (Myprecious Pitch Black, which was hardly a blockbuster in termsof ticket sales, but which spawned one hell of a huge stupid sequel,and has left me in the increasingly forlorn position of defending VinDiesel whenever his name comes up. I try to pretend The Fast andthe Furious was just some other dopey loaf of man-beef.)

When a movie that has all the trappings of a blockbuster (big moviestar, righteous explosions, at least one chase scene so ludicrous eventhe offspring of Hercules and Superninjette couldn't pull it off)tries to go beyond delivering endlessly rewatchable action, likehaving a non-nonsensical plot, it's like deafening, fireball-basedmusic to my ears. The new thriller Surrogates doesn't doeverything right, but bonus points for effort.

In the near future, mankind has all but universally switched over tosurrogates, robotic stand-ins that interact with the world while wecontrol them from the safety of our beds. If your surrogate is damageor destroyed, you wake up perfectly unharmed.

The son of the man who invented isn't so lucky. When his surrogate isdestroyed by a strange new weapon, he dies, too. FBI agents BruceWillis and Radha Mitchell are assigned to the case, but they quicklysuspect the killing is part of a bigger scheme — possibly involving theDreads, the revolutionary anti-surrogate movement holding out in smallpockets of the nation.

That there is a pretty sweet concept. It's so sweet, in fact, thatfellow nerds will recognize it as the rough plot of Snow Crash,the classic tale of Sumerian mythology and high-speed pizza delivery,and sci-fi thrillers don't get much sweeter than that.

But Surrogates fleshes out its own world with clear rules forwhat's happened to us, a detailed future history, and a great makeupscheme that makes all the surrogates look like airbrushed underpantsmodels while the actual humans resemble the stuff stuck in yourwheelwells after a long drive on the ice. It isn't afraid to makethematic use of this hotness gap, either, finding a lot of mileage inpointing out how one of the first things we'd do with this brillianttechnology is make ourselves all look like 22-year-old blondes. That'sone of the many reasons I like sci-fi: it's always finding new ways tocall you a jerk.

One of the other reasons I like sci-fi is it can sneak in the satireat the same time it's overloading your eyeballs with fiercehuman-on-robot violence. Director Jonathan Mostow puts together somenice action sequences, notably the one where a one-armed Willis-botgoes woohoo-crazy chasing down a suspect in a rusty old junkyard.

Surrogates has less luck on the human side, dedicating anineffectual subplot to the distance between Willis and hissurrogate-addicted wife. It's a good effort, but it's too generic towhip up any serious emotional traction.

If it had paid off, it might have kicked the movie up to potentialclassic status. As it is, Surrogates is tightly plotted,well-told and smart — and isn't afraid to have a little fun punchingrobots in the face, either.

Grade: B