Among the many admission price-worthy virtues of Surrogates, a darkly fun and campy sci-fi romp and cautionary tale, truth-in-marketing isn’t one of them. Robotic cheesecake tactics adorn posters, billboards, and Internet ads, with a comely young “surrogate” (aka robots sent out in the world by their sedentary, far less perfect hosts), with a metallic midriff exposed. But the idea of virtual sexuality and sexism served by high technology isn’t really the subject of Surrogates, which takes a broader, more humanistic aim. That woman in the ads is nowhere to be found in the film, whose protagonists are homicide detectives played by Bruce Willis and Radha Mitchell, seen in both their idealized “surrogate” form and in their actual time-weathered condition.
It is the future, and surrogates roam the cities where ads read “Life : Only Better.” Trouble is afoot in this utopia, of course, in the form of renegade weapons that can kill both a surrogate and its comfy chair-bound virtual host. Rebels in the defiant “human coalition” zone are taking a stand against the corporate-fueled invasion of robots, as is one of its inventors (James Cromwell), who, like Oppenheimer after the Bomb, declares, “Surrogacy is a perversion. It’s an addiction.”
Director Jonathan Mostow is the right humanoid for this job, having directed Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. He understands what is required of a sci-fi piece such as this, expertly balancing thrilling chase scenes, CGI wizardry mixed with flesh and blood, and a sense of self-effacing humor about the whole enterprise. In one scene, hedonistic surrogates party by “jacking” with an ecstatic zapping device, like the “orb” in Woody Allen’s Sleeper. All is not dire and dour here.
To that mix of elements and attitudes, the story also brings a philosophical lesson about the sinister allure of cosmetic surgery and beauty-youth obsession, as well as the dangers and ultimate ravages of such “humanity-improving” technologies as robotics and cloning. On that casually cautionary front, Surrogates takes its place in the genre of retro-future classics like Soylent Green and Blade Runner. And like those films, it’s quite possible to sink into the popcorn-level titillation factor of the thing, and leave the darker message for later mulling over.