IN MOST SCIENCE-FICTION FILMS, technology leads to doom, usually by way of war. Surrogates skips the war.
In the near(ish) future Boston of Surrogates, flesh-and-blood people spend most of their time in "stim chairs," sleek La-Z-Boys from which they control robotic avatars. They feel the pleasures of living vicariously through their android surrogates—called "surries"—and have to deal with none of the pain. It's a world where car accidents, muggings, cliff-dives, and plane crashes are nothing to worry about. A dead surry is as much of an issue as a broken down car. You buy a new one.
Everything is delightfully sterile—totally not ominous at all—until a couple homicides jolt FBI Agent Greer (Bruce Willis) right out of his futuristic La-Z-Boy. He and his partner Peters (Radha Mitchell) investigate how a surry's destruction can kill its human controller (What?! You mean the failsafe failed?!); eventually, they get to the inventor of surrogates, Cantor. (Cantor is apparently played by a surrogate version of James Cromwell; one assumes the real Cromell is elsewhere, perhaps actually acting.) It also looks like Ving Rhames spent a day or two on the set, combing his fake dreadlocks and playing "the Prophet," a leader of a humans-against-surrogates hippie commune.
While the visionary Wall-E projected a world overwhelmed by consumerism, the land of Surrogates is driven by fear, paranoia, and, most importantly, vanity. You can have a surrogate that is nothing like you—as Greer says to a hot young lawyer, "For all I know, you could be some fat dude, sitting in a stim chair with his dick hanging out." But for the most part, people choose a somewhat better looking version of themselves. Recognizable, but airbrushed.
No offense to Pixar, but Surrogates does get at something the cheery, inert fatsos of Wall-E were missing—namely, narcissism. It's a fairly astute concept, considering how much personal technology use is based in digital offshoots of ourselves, from Facebook to Twitter to e-fucking-Harmony: The rise of the machines will truly be upon us when they help us become hotter, more productive, and, lazier versions of ourselves. The Sims gets it. Second Life gets it. Surrogates totally gets it.
That clever premise is lifted from a graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, and the Surrogates film is less gritty, less noir than the namesake text. Director Jonathan Mostow (T3: Rise of the Machines) does well in exploring the surrogate concept, and shows little shame in swiping graphic elements from the Terminator movies, from flesh ripping off of metal endoskeletons to performances in which the actors behave like stiff caricatures of themselves. The result? An amusing sci-fi concept somehow combined with a pretty terrible action/crime/drama TV show. If you know when to pay attention and when to make snarky comments, you might have a great time.