Reel Time
Dale Hill

            A whole lot of make-up artists and hairdressers, along with endless crews of CGI people, worked on “Surrogates,” which opened this week, because everybody in the movie has to look Really Good.

            That's because by 2017, as our story goes, 90% of the people on earth have given up showering and leaving the house, and instead send their Much Better Looking robotic Surrogates out into the world to do their interacting, each one controlled by its human, who reclines in a sort of dentist's chair with lots of electrode connections but nowhere to spit.

            Since you experience everything your Surrogate does, and you can buy a Surrogate that looks like anything, what we see is a whole lot of drop-dead gorgeous robots partying and dancing and snogging and canoodling non-stop. Your hook-up of the moment, like yourself, is always going to be your idea of super-hot, though the human at home might be as ugly as a skunk's butt, and maybe not even of the expected sex. The robots, called Surries, are practically indestructible and can't transmit pain, so you can experience your wildest fantasy in perfect safety. Crime, disease and discrimination have been wiped out, the claim goes. “Live your life without limitations,” trumpets an ad for the deluxe model, “Become anyone you like.”

            But if everything is so hunkey-dorey, why are there still police and FBI running around? For one thing, not every human thinks the Surries are a good idea. A small Luddite segment of the population vehemently opposes the robotic technology, and they have been shut off in reservations where they live in shanty towns and preach the sanctity of the Human Being. They are called Dreads, presumably from the dreadlocks of their leader, called The Prophet, played by Ving Rhames, who has more presence than any other person, real or robot, in the film.

            That includes poor Bruce Willis, who's stuck playing FBI agent Tom Greer's Surry in a canary-colored toupee and more pancake make-up than a two-dollar hooker. Fortunately Bruce's Surry gets deconstructed about a third of the way in, and he reverts to the familiar grizzled bald guy, which was no doubt as much a relief to Willis as it is to us.

            Greer and his comely partner, played by comely Radha Mitchell, are investigating the first murder to have taken place in years. It counts as murder because when the handsome young party-boy Surry got fried, it also killed the kid who was controlling it, which is not supposed to happen. Greer and his partner get an ID from the robot's last visual, but as the police close in on the perp he fries them too, and their humans as well. “Their brains were liquified in their skulls,” Greer says, which reminds me of some of my college days.

            “Surrogates” begins with a quick montage of excerpts from “historical” documentaries that takes us from the original technology, developed to help the physically disabled, through military Surrogates that will fight all the battles, up to the narrative present, when the Surries represent most of the population.

            The set-up gives us some pretty nifty state-of-the-art visuals, such as a scene in a beauty shop where Surries drop in for what could literally be called a Peel; but the plot degenerates to a predictable murder mystery which I'm not remotely tempted to spoil for you, since you'll see every element lock into place way ahead of the actors.

            The premise also raises some rather commonplace questions about humanity's enslavement to technology, sometimes with sledgehammer irony, sometimes with actual wit, as with a brief glimpse of a TV commercial selling Surrogates for kids - “Bring them up in a world that's completely safe!” - that just makes your flesh crawl.

            But among the interesting moments, a whole lot of questions go begging: In a brief scene, a huge room full of soldiers in control chairs are guiding their Surries through a battle; if the world is so safe, why are we still fighting wars? The company that controls the top-of-the-line Surrogates is shown as a rapacious, money-making machine; how has it lowered the price of the incredibly complex technology so that 90% of the world's 7 billion population can afford it? And a corollary: the Dreads are mostly shown as fat slobs who live in filth in Dorchester and tote shotguns; is this a comment on the people who can't afford the technology, on the people who defend humanity, or on the people who reject science? And how do the humans, paralyzed in their chairs, avoid bed sores?

            These questions probably don't signify one way or the other, since the movie, like so many these days, was adapted from a series of comic books and a graphic novel, which are the preferred media for action-packed, moralistic fairy tales. But it's too bad that Bruce Willis, who knocked us all for a loop in “The Sixth Sense,” is still floundering around for the right role.