Surrogates is the best sci-fi flick of the year ... 1981

Surrogates is, hands down, the most intelligent and cutting-edge science fiction movie of 1981.

Which isn't to say it's a bad flick. It's just blah. Kinda tired and without as much punch as it should have. Surrogates comes across as something that was, after some careful thought, rejected from the slush pile at Asimov's back when Joanie Loves Chachi brought laughter and joy to America's Tuesday nights. And maybe a few years later it would have made a good episode of Max Headroom. But the whole thing feels way past its shelf date.

The flick, about a reality in which most of the world's population is plugged in to a system that allows them to stay at home and get paunchy while their Calvin Klein-model-gorgeous robotic surrogates go out into the world and do their living for them, tries really hard to be a statement about our current Internet-jacked, Sims-playing, Warcraft-obsessed, Xbox-addicted, Facebooking society. But the flick is so timid in its approach to the ideas it posits that it feels like a surrogate of the movie it's trying to be ... that there's a better, more authentic movie just behind the polymerized skin it's presenting to the world.

On its most basic and less lofty level, as an SF treatment about what happens to a transformed society when that old chestnut of murder gets thrown back into the mix, Surrogates functions a bit better. In this respect, Surrogates echoes, very slightly, Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man and John Varley's "The Barbie Murders."

Bruce Willis plays the standard-issue crusty, jaded FBI agent who, with his standard-issue partner, Radha Mitchell, must solve a murder that involves someone finding a way to kill people by zapping their robotic surrogates while he deals with standard-issue marital problems with Rosamund Pike, his standard-issue wife.

The characters are action-figure-stiff tropes. They're not fully developed. The clichés make them feel like simulacra. There's not enough humanity in the movie to make dehumanization of the cybernetic surrogacy matter. Though, to be fair, the emotional numbness caused by living through robots, as depicted in Surrogates, gets creepy at moments and has just a glimmer of the numbness that François Truffaut cooked up for his 1966 take on Bradbury's book-less world of Fahrenheit 451.

Terminator 3 director Jonathan Mostow does get props for good action sequences. The guy really knows how to edit carnage, even when it involves robot puppet people. But on the downside, the movie looks grainy and washed out in way that seems to have less to do with any aesthetic decision on Mostow's part than a strategy to make the CGI look more convincing, and the action scenes are too few and far between to punch up the movie on the whole. Mostow's use of CGI, to blank and make inhumanly pretty the faces of people's surrogates, is really unnerving and invokes the so-called "uncanny valley" (the tendency for lifelike human analogues to come across as really creepy in a Polar Express kinda way) quite nicely.

The flick has truly appalling exposition, including scenes in which our agent heroes tell the guy who invented the surrogates just how surrogates work, and one in which an agent helpfully tells another agent in the field what his jurisdiction is. There's also a riff on the old Blofeld expositional trick of "I can shoot you right now, but first let me tell you my plan so you can thwart it!" The MacGuffin does whatever the plot needs it to do, and the [MINOR SPOILER!] climax involves the use of what I like to call THE BUTTON. You know... THE BUTTON in an SF show or movie that, when pressed, wraps everything up.

It's kinda funny in old 1970s episodes when Doctor Who jury-rigs something with the sonic screwdriver, pushes THE BUTTON and the plot just resolves itself. And we expect Spock and Scotty to do something creative with dilithium crystals in the last ten minutes of a Trek episode and press THE BUTTON. But in a movie, it feels like a cheat. [END SPOILER!]

If you really need an SF movie fix, Surrogates might be worth checking out. But you'd be better off waiting for cable or DVD. Or you can just dust off your old copy of Mirrorshades and get a hell of a lot more bang for your buck.

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