Film depicts staggering truths through virtual world

This is not your average robot flick.

There are no clinking metallic machines developing intelligence and trying to take over the world. Instead, the machines look exactly like, and are controlled by, humans. Humans are the agents of their own follies, even if the mistakes they make are through a synthetic being. This is reality — virtually.

OK computer · Bruce Willis stars as surrogate robot-turned-FBI Agent Tom Greer in Jonathan Mostow’s  unconventional sci-fi thriller, Surrogates. - Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

OK computer · Bruce Willis stars as surrogate robot-turned-FBI Agent Tom Greer in Jonathan Mostow’s unconventional sci-fi thriller, Surrogates. - Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

Surrogates is a chilling, prophetic thriller starring Bruce Willis. The film opens with a countdown of events, creeping toward the inevitable new reality the world has shaped for itself: a world where diseases, crime and murder are at an all-time low. This is all made possible through the use of surrogates — robots connected to the neurons of the human to whom it is registered. The virtual reality created in the film through surrogacy is very much The Matrix meets The Sims.

Like The Matrix, the human sees what the surrogate sees, hears what the surrogate hears and feels what the surrogate feels. But there are fail-safes to eliminate the transmission of pain or death, a feature Neo would have appreciated. Another perk of a surrogate is its existence as a physical “unit” that walks, talks and works in the real, physical universe as opposed to a product of the mind.

With The Sims, you can create whichever character you want for yourself. This is a source of much comic relief in the film; for instance, surrogacy allows an obese, elderly man to work the club scene as a lascivious female blonde. However, the majority of models are younger, idealized forms of their human counterpart.

The surrogates are not perfect; they have to be maintained and charged. They are virtually indestructible, however, and even if the unit is obliterated, the user remains unharmed.

The surrogates were originally made for a noble purpose — to enable the blind to see, the deaf to hear and the disabled to walk. But the craze caught on with the able-bodied public, and surrogate life became reckless and carefree. Those who oppose this lifestyle and prefer not to use surrogates are referred to as “meatbags” and live on reservations.

All goes askew when one such meatbag is paid to kill the inventor of surrogates, using the only device that can override the failsafes to murder both the surrogate and its human user simultaneously. Tom Greer (Willis), a surrogate working for the FBI, is charged with finding the murdering meatbag and his weapon before he does any more damage to the population at large.

Surrogates is a bona fide thriller, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats as the film moves through a chilling timeline of how surrogacy came to be the norm in this alternate world.

The film’s objective is not to scare you, but to make you think: What would your surrogate look like? Or would you get one at all?

Despite the futuristic plot, director Jonathan Mostow must be commended for not making the film a typical sci-fi affair. Even though robots litter the screen, and nothing is “real,” Surrogates strangely exudes an air of realism and believability is never sacrificed. But it might be less of a testament to Mostow’s filmmaking and more of a reflection of our current society’s resignation that surrogacy is not too far off — an actual belief given the proximity of virtual reality.

Because he has mastered the vigilant crime fighter throughout his career, Willis has been continually condemned to these roles in his more recent films. But all of that changes with FBI agent Greer, as Willis finally reveals some depth beneath his good-guy, crime-fighting persona.

British actress Rosamund Pike (Pride and Prejudice, Die Another Day) also makes an impressionable turn as Greer’s depressed wife, Maggie. Pike is an extremely versatile actress who can make her characters deep and emotional, or stoic and hardened. In this case, Pike displays both in the same film, underlining the contrast between the real Maggie and the attitude Maggie has adopted through her surrogate.

Surrogates reminds us that Hollywood is still capable of producing films that make you think. This film won’t be up for any Academy Awards, nor would you need to see it more than once or twice. Nevertheless, you will never regret seeing Surrogates, and it will be virtually impossible to forget its message.