For most of his career, director Jonathan Mostow has done feature-length 'Twilight Zone' episodes. They hinge on a simple but irresistible hook. In 'Breakdown,' it's the question of – what happens when your car breaks down and your wife goes for help and never comes back? With 'U-571,' it was – what would happen if a bunch of Allies got caught on a Nazi submarine and nobody knew it? Even Mostow's biggest directing gig, 'Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,' has a gloriously gloomy 'Twilight Zone' ending. (He even spent years developing the decidedly 'Twilight Zone'-y 'The Game,' before David Fincher ultimately got the job.) But with 'Surrogates,' Mostow has directed his first extended 'Outer Limits' episode.
Based on a comic book series by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, 'Surrogates' takes place in a futuristic world where people don't leave their houses. Instead, they control, via psychic connection, 'Surrogates' – life-size robots who look a lot like their human counterparts, except younger, sexier, more toned. The central conflict arises when a wealthy young man, the son of the industrialist who founded surrogacy, is murdered while plugged into his surrogate. Usually, surrogates can be killed without any harm coming to their "driver," but this killed both the driver and the surrogate. So, FBI Agent Tom Greer (Bruce Willis, looking incredibly bored) and his partner Agent Jennifer Peters (Radha Mitchell) are on the case. And soon, a fairly complex web of intrigue is set up, as they investigate militantly anti-surrogate human The Prophet (Ving Rhames) and the father of surrogacy himself, Dr. Lionel Canter (James Cromwell).
Willis is unplugged fairly early on and gets to spend the rest of the movie as a man in the real world, investigating a crime in a fantasy one. He doesn't have any robo-special powers, he's older, paunchier, greyer, and looked down upon by all the beautiful, gleaming automatons. It's an interesting dynamic, except Bruce looks like he's counting down the seconds until he collects his paycheck and buys himself a new plane or something.
While you might think the 'Surrogates' set up has some incredibly interesting philosophical underpinnings, you'd be right. What, exactly, is reality when everyone communicates through these channels? Who is more real – the human or the surrogate? What happens when we make ourselves into robotic superheroes? What of surrogate-on-surrogate violence? And then there's the gender politics of surrogacy, since, as we see early in the movie, a fat slob has a supple young woman surrogate. Well, all of these moral and philosophical conundrums are left on the back burner (or never addressed at all), instead focusing on giant car chases and an increasingly convoluted whodunit plot which ends in an appropriately eerie note, but one that isn't milked for all of its dramatic and thematic potential.
This is a real shame, both because the mechanics of the plot suggest so much more, and because Mostow, as an incredibly savvy conductor of above average genre material, really could have invested in the world in a fundamentally deeper way. As it stands, it's a kind of above-average sci-fi flick that isn't bad if you're out of rental ideas on a Friday night. But for the kind of deeper, more sophisticated genre piece you'd expect from director Mostow, well, you'll be disappointed. 'Surrogates' is a movie that has a whole host of ideas laid out before it but refuses to engage any of them in a real way. Instead, it's just a bland, vaguely futuristic world (you can tell it's the future because everyone has weird lighting fixtures in their homes and offices) populated by robots (really just bored actors acting like robots) and not much else.
The MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer on this disc (aspect ratio: 2.40:1) looks pretty great, even if 'Surrogates,' on the whole, isn't a very handsome-looking movie.
The 'Surrogates' world isn't one of oppressive darkness or of overwhelming color. Instead, scenes are sort of glowingly hued: the "human" sections of the town are warmer, with a more golden hue; while much of the "Surrogates" world has the steely cold blue hue of an early James Cameron movie. Plus, the movie is chock full of unconvincing visual effects, with digitals effects (there's a lightning effect that looks like it was lifted out of 'Ernest Goes to Jail'), prosthetic effects and the post-production de-aging techniques (as seen in 'Wolverine,' with the weirdly angelic Patrick Stewart) all looking even phonier in high definition.
All that said, the transfer still looks pretty good. Oliver Wood (the 'Bourne' films) shot the movie, which has all the sheen of a typically slick Hollywood action movie. Skin tones look good when they're supposed to (on humans) and waxy when they're not (on the surrogates), the level of detail and texture is spot-on, blacks are deep. The movie looks noticeably "clean," without much in the way of grain, and the only glaring technical issue is a few distracting instances of noise. Beyond that, it's bug free.
Overall, it's a strong presentation of a movie that was only okay-looking to begin with.
More impressive is the meaty DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. Even though a major complaint about the film that it dissolves into a series of boom-crash-bang action set pieces, those boom-crash-bang action set pieces are brought to vivid life here.
The mix is immersive and atmospheric in quieter scenes, with dialogue crisp, clear and well prioritized. But all of this makes way for full-on, surround-sound shake the couch theatrics later on. There's a scene where a helicopter crashes and it's one of the more bombastic action sequences I've heard on Blu-ray. Elsewhere, the surround mix envelops you, as cars zoom across screen and secret plots are uncovered.
What's nice about this mix is that even the quieter scenes (which, granted, are few and far between) are awarded the same intense precision as the muscular action sequences. Some may feel the sheer outrageousness of the louder scenes overwhelms the quieter ones, but I disagree. This is a perfectly modulated mix, through and through.
Additionally, audio in French Dolby Digital 5.1 and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 are included, as well as subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
There are a fair number of special features on this disc, but very few of them are interesting or worth your attention.
'Surrogates' offers just enough intrigue (and a genuinely gonzo performance by Ving Rhames) to give it a rental recommendation. The video is pretty good for a film that isn't all that striking visually, it's got a really great audio track, and a few extras that aren't all that interesting. Those looking for the bold science fiction fun of previous Bruce Willis outings like '12 Monkeys' or 'The Fifth Element' will be disappointed. Everyone else who is bored and wants an above-average episode of 'Outer Limits,' well, you've come to the right place.