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The Virtual Life is Not Worth Living

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

It’s the zeitgeist all over again, at least when it comes to virtual, simulated worlds and simulated living. Ten years ago, The Matrix set the virtual ball rolling. In the recently released Gamer, the latest videogame/reality show innovation allows gamers to manipulate their “avatars”, actual human beings, through life-or-death games. In December, James Cameron’s Avatar, a science-fiction/action film also premised on “avatar” stand-ins, will hit multiplexes everywhere. Before Avatar, however, moviegoers will get a chance to experience, albeit second-hand, a different kind of virtual experience with the release of Surrogates this weekend.

Directed by Jonathan Mostow (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, U-571, Breakdown) and adapted by Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato (Terminator: Salvation, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, The Game) from the mini-series/graphic novel written by Robert Venditti, illustrated by Brett Weldele, and published by Top Shelf, Surrogates is part police procedural, part mystery-thriller, part science fiction/actioner, and part social commentary. As promising as all that sounds, however, Surrogates is undermined by genre clichés, shallow characters, and flaccid, unimaginative set pieces.

In the near future (2017 in the adaptation, 2054 in the graphic novel), “surrogates,” mass-produced, remote-controlled robots, have become have become as ubiquitous as computers and cell phones, providing operators with the ultimate wi-fi connection. Operators experience everything the surrogate sees, hears, touches, smells, or tastes, all from the safety of their homes. Surrogates can be molded to resemble their owners, a more perfect version of their owners, or even someone completely different. For everyone who can afford a surrogate (almost everyone, apparently), a utopian existence awaits.

When a motorcycle-riding assailant wielding a high-tech weapon attacks a surrogate couple outside a Boston nightclub, the local FBI chief, Stone (Boris Kodjoe), sends Special Agents Greer (Bruce Willis) and Peters (Radha Mitchell) to investigate. Almost immediately, Greer and Peters discover that the assailant also killed the surrogates’ operators.

The investigation leads Greer and Peters to Lionel Canter (James Cromwell), the inventor of surrogate technology (and father of one of the victims) and the anti-surrogate, dreadlocked Prophet (Ving Rhames), the leader of an anti-surrogate movement that operates from so-called “Dread Reservations”. The Prophet and his followers believe that a “virtual life is not worth living” and agitate for the destruction of surrogates and the return of direct, unmediated living.

Greer’s pursuit of another suspect, Miles Strickland (Jack Noseworthy), leads to a confrontation inside the reservation and the destruction of Greer’s surrogate. Greer returns to the real world for the first time in years, a decision his wife, Maggie (Rosamund Pike), openly rejects. Like millions of others, Maggie has become addicted to living through her surrogate. Surrogacy allows her to live unchanged by biology or time, a younger, more beautiful, more perfect version of herself.

From the opening credits on, it’s obvious neither Mostow nor his screenwriters were interested in creating challenging, intelligent entertainment. Mostow emphasizes the procedural aspects of the storyline and Greer’s (yawn-inducing) struggle to reconnect with his wife. Unfortunately, it’s a backstory we’ve seen so often in and out of science fiction films that it’s going to leave all but the least experienced moviegoers in shoulder-shrugging mode. Instead, it’s just one more derivative idea in a film crammed with derivative ideas, both on the story level and the thematic level (e.g., technology as a double-edged sword, the downside of living virtually, etc.).

Even worse, Surrogates fails to deliver even superficial action thrills. With the exception of an early chase through the high-tech streets of Boston and the Dread Reservation and a semi-climactic chase, again on the streets of Boston (in both cases pitting surrogates against overmatched “meat-bags”, as non-surrogate using humans are called), Surrogates meanders from one expository scene to another as a newly suspended, surrogate-free Greer tries to adjust to the real world, gather (over-obvious) clues about the murders, and reconcile with his wife. Simply put, Surrogates is one graphic novel adaptation that fails on every level.