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Cinema Signal: Go! Strong appeal for Sci-fi audiences

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. "Surrogates"

Based on "The Surrogates," a five-issue comic book series written by Robert Venditti, drawn by Brett Weldele, and published by Top Shelf Productions, this film might easily be mistaken as an adaptation from the work of science fiction author Philip K. Dick, from whom sprung the ideas for such films as "Paycheck," "Blade Runner," and "Minority Report." The theme in common is the "what-if" situation of the bright new world of some future technology that has evolved in a certain way. Vendetti's concept is a world of humans who own and operate robotic surrogates who go out into a dangerous world and live for them while the human operator sits in the safety and comfort of a cyber-kinetic easy chair at home.

Though there are dangers on the streets, damage or injury can only happen to the humanoid avatars, life-like machines that are built by VSI, a corporation headed by inventor-scientist Dr. Lionel Canter (James Cromwell). With mostly replaceable parts, the only irretrievable component would be the memory chips, the loss of which would be as close as you can come to surrogate death. But, still, even that would leave the human at home unscathed, and you can take that safety factor to the bank!

Such certainty begins to change when Canter's son is murdered--for real-- when his surrogate is gunned down with a secret ray that transmits instant death to the human operator. This is something no one thought possible until it is seen on a surveillance tape.

On the investigation is FBI Agent Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) looking like he just got his diploma from a male grooming school, and partner Peters (luminous Radha Mitchell) with a manequin-perfect plasticity. These are surrogate-agents and they start the investigation by meeting with one of Canter's surrogates in the highly guarded precincts of VSI headquarters. While the loss of the inventor's son in this way is cause for grief, it's not wasted on anyone that the weapon used makes all humans vulnerable. It must be found and destroyed.

The killer is identified as a Dread, an extremist group of anti-surrogate humans with the religioso ferver to destroy any humanoid machine on sight. They are disciples of the fearsome "Prophet" (dreadlocked Ving Rhames) who keeps them on the razor edge of uprising. The use of a weapon by one of them outside the the boundaries of their zone, is, however, highly unusual and, when Greer's surrogate spots the gunman the chase ends inside the forbidden zone. It's soon over for Greer's slick-looking representative. Greer, himself, has to make a choice... eigher get a new surrogate or take over in his own self.

For me, the test of a far-out science fiction concept is only as good as it retains a consistent logic and expresses itself in a wide range of permutations. One example of how screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris came up to the challenge is the scene in which agent Peters snaps her partner out of his lament over the loss of his surrogate by taking him shopping for a new one. It may seem like a throwaway scene just for amusement, but it's more. The procedure of choosing a surrogate helps key us into an understanding of the far-fetched relational realities. For this, I say, good job.

Emotional costs to humans aren't avoided, either. The running problem for lead character Greer, who we see at home in his own grubby, aged, someone worn self, is his relationship to his wife. He entreats her through her surrogate, (gorgeous Rosamund Pike with glorious, golden Farrah Fawcett tresses), to go on a real vacation together. But she (the real one who is now hermitized in her control chair in the dark just a few rooms away) isn't agreeing to it, strongly suggesting another cost of the surrogating life--the development of fears of the real contact of "coming out."

In any case, it's no surprise that the perfection of a surrogate society contains the seed of its own destruction. It comes in the form of that ray gun that no one thought possible and which shakes all prevailing complacency apart, especially when one demonic mind is busy trying to reverse the techno algorithm that made it all possible--a scheme our hero must block.

As for performances within this unbrave new world, Willis, as usual, gives us our time and money's worth. As an everyman whose actions are driven by an emotional engine, he is in full core mode here with the added benefit of surrogate energy and propulsive range. This pays off with a chase well designed for the action potential of the somewhat sedentary and theoretical nature of the premise.

Casting is generally superb, especially astute in the case of Radha Mitchell who, with her natural facial perfection and bodily proportions, was born to the part. My bet is that she was out of hair and makeup every morning on the set for the transition to surrogacy before any other actor because so little needed to be done. Equally gorgeous Elizabeth Banks is credited as one of the executive producers on the movie, making one wonder if she had been offered a part early on. Either Mitchell's or Pikes's would be my guess.

Burly, unshaven Devin Ratray is fun as Bobby, the system op for the corporate database. Ironically, he's the one well-meaning character who sees no benefit in sitting in a virtual cybernetic chair in a dark and lonely room running a surrogate. Something to be said for work ethic and good old appreciation for the tactile sensations of living your own life.

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The DVD
The Blu-ray Edition DVD
SPECIAL FEATURES:
  • Deleted Scenes
  • A More Perfect You: The Science of Surrogates
  • Breaking the Frame: A Graphic Novel Comes to Life
  • "I Will Not Bow" Music Video by Breaking Benjamin (Both formats)
  • Feature Audio Commentary by Director Jonathan Mostow (Both formats)
    The Soundtrack

  • Cinematographer Oliver Wood makes the play between the plastic and the organic in sets, production design, wardrobe and makeup combine brilliantly with an adept range of visual tones from inner sanctums to showroom glitz. Director Jonathan Mostow oversees the dynamics of the theme with high capability.

    The underlying theme is an interesting one as it applies to today's world. How far do you go to avoid getting killed by a hit-and-run driver, or a terrorist? Is perfect safety worth sitting in the womb of virtual reality for the rest of your life?

    Pic runs a right, tight 88 minutes--before any non-surrogate in the audience has a chance to think of getting out of their chair.

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                                          ~~  Jules Brenner  
    

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    Bruce Willis as Tom Greer, FBI agent. Running his surrogate in a utopian future world.

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