Sometimes there's nothing better than an exciting sci-fi premise, a take on our future that resonates nicely with the present and doesn't feel like a thin variation on what we've seen before. But there's nothing worse than seeing that premise squandered, which is exactly the fate of Surrogates, a movie that is handed a fascinating concept and slaps onto it a generic conspiracy plot that's as boring as it is impossible to follow.
In the not-so-distant future, technology has advanced to the point that humans use mind-controlled robots to go about their daily lives, letting the robots-- or surrogates-- experience the world while we relax at home in tricked-out Barcaloungers. Bruce Willis plays Greer, an FBI investigator who is at first living life like everyone else through his surrogate, who is Bruce Willis wearing a half-ton of pancake makeup and a ludicrous blond wig. Like every cop in the history of movies, Greer is haunted by the memory of a dead son and paired up with spunky female partner Peters (Radha Mitchell), whose surrogate only looks a little less ridiculous because she requires less makeup to look perfect.
Thanks to the surrogates there hasn't been a murder in years, until a canoodling couple is gunned down in an alley, frying the brains of their users back at home. One of the victims turns out to be the son of Canter (James Cromwell), the inventor of surrogates who later fell out with the company he founded. Greer and Peters' hunt for the killer leads them to the reservation on the edge of Boston, where anti-surrogate humans have gathered under the tutelage of The Prophet (Ving Rhames), who insists the safety of surrogates is one big lie. From there unravels a giant conspiracy that-- gasp!--leads right to the top.
Blessedly Bruce Willis' surrogate is broken early in the film, forcing Greer to walk around in the world himself for the first time in years and relieving us of the sight of his awful wig. But once we start seeing the actual humans behind the surrogates, things can get a little confusing, with Rosamund Pike playing both her picture-perfect self as Greer's wife surrogate and the aged real version, and people jumping willy nilly in and out of one another's surrogates so that it's nearly impossible to tell who's who. It's like Mission: Impossible masks, but with robots.
Trickier still is the lack of stakes when it comes to putting any of the main characters in danger. Director Jonathan Mostow and his screenwriters Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato do a pretty good job of interspersing live humans among the surrogates, but there's still a lot of wanton shooting at robots who do nothing but grin back and keep walking. Some great special effects result-- Mitchell especially shines in a killer fight scene-- but it's also hard to care much about the results. There's only one weapon that can kill the actual humans behind the surrogates, and for much of the movie it's not used or missing entirely.
There are a lot of interesting ideas in Surrogates, from the intentionally wooden acting by some surrogates to the Wall-E-esque degradation of the human bodies behind the machines, but Mostow is far too absorbed in the nonsense conspiracy plot and frenetic action sequences to allow the audience to explore the world he's created. Half-baked and generic, Surrogates is entertaining enough for what it is, but a bland take on what could have been truly special.