Every now and then, two or three movies will hit upon the same idea at the same time—and right now, the hot topic du jour seems to be remote-controlled bodies. A few weeks ago, we saw humans controlling fellow humans in Gamer, and a few months from now, we will see humans controlling extra-terrestrial hybrids in James Cameron's Avatar. But for now, we have Surrogates, a futuristic sci-fi flick in which something like a billion humans—including nearly all Americans—conduct their affairs through robot duplicates of themselves.

Well, okay, the robots aren't always exact copies of the people who operate them. Near the beginning of the film, two robots—a man and a woman—are about to have a quick little tryst in an alley behind a nightclub, and it is revealed not long afterwards that both of these machines were operated by men. So the whole concept of robot "surrogates" is, on one level, an extrapolation of current anxieties around virtual identities: How do you know that the man or woman you met online really is who and what they claim to be?

Bruce Willis as Agent Greer

Bruce Willis as Agent Greer

On an even deeper level, though, the film is largely about the human desire for safety and immortality, and how we humans need to expose ourselves to risk, danger and even the certainty of death if we are to be truly alive. The story centers on John Greer (Bruce Willis), an FBI agent who rarely leaves his chair at home because he is hooked up to a surrogate that does all the hard work of going to the office, investigating crime scenes and chasing the odd criminal. Greer is good at his job, but he is frustrated because all this technology has come between him and his wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike); he wants to spend time with her, to really and truly be with her in the flesh, but she has locked herself in her bedroom and never leaves it—except through her own robotic surrogate, which looks younger, prettier and therefore "better" than the real person, at least as far as she is concerned.

And so the story alternates between two plot threads. In one, Greer the FBI robot (with digitally airbrushed features and a bad blond wig) investigates an unusual double homicide; the male and female robots that met behind the nightclub were electrocuted by some anonymous stranger, and the shock of the attack not only fried their circuits but killed the human beings who were operating the robots from the supposed safety of their homes. And, in the other, Greer the neglected husband (with grizzled, wrinkled features and a decidedly bald head) pines for the wife who would rather be artificially perfect than real.

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Peters (Radha Mitchell) and Greer

Peters (Radha Mitchell) and Greer

There's an interesting idea or two in this film, the script for which was loosely adapted by Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato (the last two Terminator films) from a graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele. But the film doesn't do anything all that interesting with those ideas. Once the basic tension is set up between Greer and his wife, for example, nearly every scene between them repeats the basic point without taking the story anywhere. Similarly, the movie begins with a black screen and a voice telling us we should be satisfied with the bodies God gave us—and that's about as deep as things get, thematically.

But that isn't to say the film is entirely lacking in nuance or ambiguity. Some of the images are quite striking: For example, when a military officer says his men are engaged in "a peacekeeping mission," we see a vast room filled with men sitting at desks and staring at computer screens; the eerie tranquility within that room can't mask the fact that these men are all participating in violence somewhere probably halfway 'round the world. (And how likely is it that the people they are fighting would be able to afford a surrogate army of their own? Are the robots "killing" other robots, or are they targeting real human beings?)

Rosamund Pike as Maggie

Rosamund Pike as Maggie

There is also an interesting sequence in which Greer—the man, not the robot—pays a visit to a "reservation" that is led by a technophobic "prophet" named Zaire Powell (Ving Rhames). The "prophet" won't allow machines on the reservation, and when one surrogate does show up there, his followers destroy it for being an "abomination" and string it up on something that resembles a cross. So, on the one hand, the people who oppose the surrogates most vociferously come across like religious bigots—and yet, as Greer walks around their community, he sees children playing ball games (no video games here!) and grown-ups tending their gardens, and he seems to admire what they do.

Moments like these are pregnant with possibility, but the movie never lingers on them for long, always opting to fall back on its convoluted murder mystery. About that, I will say little, except to note that one of the initial murder victims turns out to have been the son of the man who invented the surrogates—and the inventor is played by James Cromwell, who previously played a robot scientist who was, himself, seemingly murdered at the beginning of I, Robot a few years ago. Things like this give Surrogates a weird feeling of déjà vu. (The religious prejudice against the robots also brings A.I. Artificial Intelligence to mind.)

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A mannequin at the VSI office

A mannequin at the VSI office

Directed by Jonathan Mostow (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines), the film gets a number of the smaller details right, such as the way people who can afford to live through their machines look down on those who don't as "meat-bags," or the way robots come in different models, some of which are clearly mechanical because they are only meant to be used as infantrymen or as "loaners" while the regular surrogates are sent to the shop for repairs. But other story elements are so hokey or clichéd you cannot help but roll your eyes; chief among these is the omnipotent computer nerd (Devin Ratray) who spouts a lot of exposition and has instant access to the hundreds of millions of surrogates in the country.

And so it goes, throughout the film's very brief running time (a mere 88 minutes, rather short for a sci-fi action film these days). Good ideas rub up against bad ideas, and the result is a movie that is worth a look but could have been much more.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. How important is physical experience, including the risk of physical danger? If you could have the chance to use a robot surrogate, would you take it? Why or why not?

  2. How important is it to be honest or open about who and what you are, for example when you go online? Is it wrong to pretend to be a different age, gender or name? Why or why not?

  3. Why do you think people feel the need to "improve" on the bodies that God gave them? (In the real world, we may not have surrogates but we do have cosmetic surgery and other enhancements.) What sort of attitude should we have toward our bodies, given the fact of the Incarnation but also the fact that the world is, in some sense, fallen? (See 1 Cor. 6:19-20.)

  4. What do you make of Zaire Powell's religious movement and the way its members regard surrogates as an "abomination"? Do they have a point? Do they go too far?

  5. Why does John Greer long to be with his "real" wife and not with her surrogate? What does this longing tell us about the nature of being "one flesh" with your spouse?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Surrogates is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence (robots being electrocuted and ripped apart by crashing cars and helicopters), disturbing images, language (maybe half a dozen bad words), sexuality (nothing explicit, though) and a drug-related scene.

Our Rating
2 Stars - Fair
Average Rating
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Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence, disturbing images, language, sexuality and a drug-related scene)
Directed By
Jonathan Mostow
Run Time
1 hour 29 minutes
Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Ving Rhames
Theatre Release
September 25, 2009 by Touchstone Pictures
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