“Surrogates” — a thought-provoking thriller

6 06 2010

I am a fan of Bruce Willis, and I like the choices he makes regarding the projects he selects. “Surrogates” was, for me, another enjoyable ride. It’s ostensibly a murder mystery, set in a near-future world in which people can choose to live their lives vicariously by jacking into “surrogates” — humanoid robot replicas who look perfectly human (a bit too perfect, in fact) and move through society in place of their human operators. Crime rates are down, and war is fought by these robots instead of people, while the small proportion of humanity that rejects the use of surrogates has been relegated to robot-free slum zones. Society is a lot prettier — surrogates are invariably better-looking, idealized versions of their operators — while the bulk of humanity has been reduced to overweight, unkempt, bathrobe-clad couch potatoes who never venture outside, preferring virtual reality to the real deal.

Willis plays Tom Greer, an FBI agent who, in the course of investigating the deaths of several surrogate operators, is cut off from his surrogate and must navigate the real world, no longer insulated from crowds or physical pain. The film is a thoughtful study of denial and escape, and the isolation of humanity due to technology, as much as it is a thriller. Watching Tom struggle to function as a human out in the cold, cruel world, a formidable obstacle among the many that he encounters as he seeks the truth about the killings, was remarkable. The story gradually peels away the layers of his existence, revealing that he lost a son, that his scarred and depressed wife has buried her grief behind her pretty, perky surrogate’s persona and is unable to show her true self even to her husband. Tom’s quest to reconnect with her and salvage his marriage is a poignant subplot running through the story.

Willis is marvelous, playing two roles in the film — Tom’s surrogate, whose pleasantly blank countenance and incongrous blond hair is eerie, even creepy — and Tom himself, a haunted and vulnerable man who never loses his determination to find justice, and never gives up on his wife.

I like “falling in love” love stories, but I’m always up for a good “keep the love alive” story or subplot, because maintaining a love relationship is often more of a challenge than finding love in the first place. The love-story subplot of “Surrogates” was an effective and affecting way to explore the film’s themes of isolation and escape, and added an emotional resonance to an already entertaining film. Thumbs up from me.