All things considered, Jonathan Mostow makes movies that really should be better. This is true of his very sinister Breakdown, of his ill-advised Terminator 3, and of his 2009 sci-fi thriller Surrogates. Mostow is competent, and he puts together appealing genre exercises that are just good enough to whet the audience's appetite for a much better movie. Surrogates suggests so many interesting avenues of exploration that one longs for it to have been made by a Kubrick or even a Spielberg. Instead, the interesting ideas all provide plot points.
The story posits a future in which robotic bodies are driven from afar by users as a means of presenting younger versions of themselves, of being indestructible in the face of dangerous occupations and passtimes, and even of exploring polymorphous sexual identities. In the course of the film, someone manages to attack one of the surrogates in a way that kills the user. Enter FBI agents Greer and Peters, who follow the crumbs to both VSI, the company that builds the surrogates, to that company's exiled founder, Dr. Canter, and to the Dreds, a cult that abhors surrogates. In the course of the movie, Greer's surrogate is destroyed and he has to take to the street as his flesh and blood self, navigating the mystery without the benefit of indestructibility. This causes some friction with his wife, who he hasn't seen in the flesh in some time. Peters, for her part, meets with a different misfortune, and her surrogate becomes an agent of chaos in the back end of the movie.
Given that short summary of the plot, any reasonably imaginative person could extrapolate any number scenarios from the comic to the apocalyptic to the transgressively kinky. Hell, the filmmakers are obviously aware of all of the possibilities inherent in their premise because they occasionally touch on just about all of them. But the film doesn't take it any deeper than points on the line of a police procedural. From my own perspective, the scene where they discover the first victim taken out by the murderer is a huge prick tease: the surrogate is a bombshell of a woman, but the user is a middle-aged white guy. This scene is over in about thirty seconds, and passes almost without comment. It says something to me about a movie so overloaded with untapped ideas when it clocks in at under an hour and a half, as this one does. It means that the filmmakers couldn't even be bothered. Pity.
In any case, as I say, the whole thing is competent. Mostow stages the action sequences in a perfunctory manner, and he doesn't intrude on the plot with anything approaching style, but in an era of over-edited run and gun filmmaking, you could make an argument for the classical austerity in this approach. And the movie does occasionally have an arresting image or two. Most notable--and the most creepy--is the way the movie's special effects make both Bruce Willis and Radha Mitchell into perfect versions of themselves. The surrogate version of Willis appears to be about 38, while Mitchell's appears to be about 29. Surprisingly, I find Willis at his actual age to be considerably more attractive, but that's just me.
The film has to perform an interesting inversion of this on Rosamund Pike as Willis's wife. She probably doesn't look far off from her barbie-doll surrogate, but they have to age her considerably for her flesh and blood counterpart. One of the film's more arresting images is the broken doll stare of Pike's face after her surrogate has been disconnected.
So what we have here is a genre programmer that should be a mind-blower. Damn you, Mostow. Would it hurt to even try once in a while?