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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"SURROGATES"

Surrogates is good enough that I wish it were better. Does that make sense? There are some incredible ideas in this film. They're so interesting, in fact, that I didn't really mind if it borrowed so many elements from Blade Runner, Minority Report and a few other classic sci-fi flicks. And yet, as I watched, I couldn't get this nagging feeling out of my head - the one saying that a movie with so much ambition really ought to be engrossing me more.


Bruce Willis plugs in and drops out in the sci-fi thriller Surrogates.
 
The story is set in the not-too-distant future. People don't really interact anymore. Instead, they sit in "stim-chairs" and allow surrogates to interact for them. A surrogate is like a real-life avatar from "World of Warcraft" or something; it's the public image of the private person. The surrogates are like more perfect reflections of one's self. You can be whatever you want, look however you want, and behave in any way you want. This next part gets a little confusing. The guy who invented surrogates, Canter (James Cromwell), has a grown son. Someone shoots the kid's surrogate with a special type of gun that not only fries the thing, but also melts his own (real) brain. This, obviously, is not supposed to happen.

The cop investigating the case is Thomas Greer (Bruce Willis). Actually, it's his surrogate that's investigating the case. Like everyone else, he's withdrawn from the world. After his own son was killed in an accident, Greer took to his stim-chair, but he's now regretting how this has changed his relationship with his wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike), who also lets a surrogate do her living for her. Greer and his partner (Radha Mitchell) track down the mysterious weapon, and the trail leads to "the Prophet" (Ving Rhames), the leader of a pro-human/anti-surrogate faction that may be planning an uprising.

I find the concept of Surrogates utterly fascinating. So much of our lives are now lived via surrogates anyway, except that we call them "avatars" or "screen names" or "profiles." That we, as a society, might someday withdraw completely and allow phony versions of ourselves to exist in our place is perhaps not as far-fetched as it may initially seem. And, if this were to come to pass, a device that would kill the user by killing the surrogate would certainly be a cause for great alarm. The movie does some cool things with this idea, most notably in the panic that arises among some of the characters when they realize their "cover" might be blown. Maggie, for instance, has chosen to make her surrogate look years younger than she actually is; it's a way of going back to the time pre-tragedy. Being without her surrogate would mean facing life as it really is.

Intriguing, too, is the Prophet. Here's a guy who sees through the artifice. He knows humanity has been reduced to something it was never meant to be. People don't communicate for real anymore, and while faux news footage used in the opening credits suggests that several serious social ills have decreased since the widespread popularity of surrogates began, the Prophet understands that this is not good enough. Then there's Greer, who's tasked with chasing a killer, knowing full well that the person is, in reality, just in a room somewhere strapped to a chair.

Like I said, a lot of good stuff here. The problem with Surrogates is simple: it's too short. The story introduces a series of elements, all of which are conceptually gripping, then fails to fully capitalize on a single one of them. With a running time of just 88 minutes (including the five minute end credits), how could it? We often compliment a movie by saying that it is "fast-paced." Surrogates isn't fast-paced, it's just fast. There's no pacing here whatsoever. Each time something interesting is introduced, the plot zips right along to the next thing when, in fact, we want it to ease up and explore the ideas in more depth.

The best futuristic cautionary tales - like the aforementioned Blade Runner and Minority Report or even District 9 - have a deliberate pace. We are encouraged to stop and consider the moral, ethical, and social implications of the concept. This is what fundamentally builds the suspense. When we have time to absorb the ideas, we come to understand what exactly hangs in the balance. I'd have loved to see Surrogates slow down a little, to go deeper. The relationship between Greer and his wife could have been shown in more detail. We could have learned more about the motives and ways of the Prophet. A contentious split between Canter and the company he founded is hinted at but never really explained. And surely there are a million little ways that living life via a surrogate would change society. How about showing more of them?

My suspicion is that director Jonathan Mostow (Breakdown, Terminator 3) had a longer, more nuanced director's cut that, for whatever reason, was shortened. I hope I'm right and that an expanded cut will hit DVD at some point. The version of Surrogates that's being released to theaters is watchable and passable. It has some decent action, some effective humor, and a solid Bruce Willis performance. Having said that, a longer version of this story could potentially be a sci-fi masterpiece.

( 1/2 out of four)


Surrogates is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, disturbing images, language, sexuality and a drug-related scene. The running time is 1 hour and 28 minutes.

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