Director:Jonathan Mostow Release Date: 25 September Review by Jack Burton What’s the collective noun for a group of Bruce Willises? A McClane? A vest? I only ask as, to my reckoning, I can identify at least two distinct versions and they both manage to take centre stage in Surrogates. Which one of them comes out with top billing at the end, however, depends very much on a matter of personal taste. For the sake of ease we’ll call the first of them ‘Bruce McClane’, as it would be perfectly possible to argue that this version was little more than endless variation on a well-worn theme; the sort of wise-cracking, bad guy’s punch bag with which Willis made his name. The second is a more complex beast that it’s tempting to name (with a rather foreboding sense of inevitable confusion) ‘The Sixth Bruce’. But stick with me here, as it was, after all, M. Night Shyamalan’s paranormal blockbuster that introduced many of us to the confusing concept of Willis as intelligent and sensitive actor. The high-concept sci-fi of Surrogates seems as if it may finally offer the chance for both Bruces to co-exist within a single character. The action is set in the near future. A montage of news reports outlines the history of what appears to be humanity’s defining technology: ‘surrogates’, eerily lifelike robots that act as an empty vessel through which most people now choose to experience the world. While humanity stays at home, growing fat and old in their ‘stem-chairs’, perfect mechanical replicas of themselves (or, indeed, somebody else) live out their daily lives. At first glance it’s a sci-fi utopia, the majority free to experience life without the limitation and risk of their own physicality. Crime and unrest are all but non-existent and there hasn’t been a murder in years. But when F.B.I. agent Tom Greer (Willis) is called in to investigate a deadly new weapon capable of destroying both surrogate and operator he begins to question the wisdom of living life through a machine. Director Jonathan Mostow (of Terminator 3 fame) proves to be a relatively capable pair of hands for this type of material. That said, there’s a sense of the familiar about many of the sci-fi elements and the film could easily be accused of borrowing a little too liberally from a number of similar movies. Ok, so the ‘stem-chair’ is lifted in all but name from The Matrix, the eerie sheen of the surrogates from A.I., the robot production plant from I, Robot, but for fans of the genre this need not be a problem. It’s always been an irony of science fiction that it draws inspiration from the past to furnish a vision of the future and the moments at which the film wears its inspiration on its sleeve are actually some of the strongest. There is a nicely realised sense of uncanny about the slick world inhabited by the surrogates, for example. A sense of stilted technological perfection covering up the organic rot beneath which is potentially fascinating. It’s the kind of material that has attracted ‘The Sixth Bruce’ before. Like all great sci-fi the plot of Surrogates hinges upon key philosophical questions: what is the relationship between human consciousness and the body? What is the difference between virtual experience and the real? When it comes to similarly complex sci-fi grounded in ideas this Bruce can certainly spot a winner. He worked with the master for Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys and showed a keen sense of the pathos that made Kurt Vonnegut tick in an admittedly uneven adaptation of Breakfast of Champions. But then there’s ‘Bruce McClane’, one of the big three of eighties action movies, and about half way through the movie it’s clear this Bruce might well have the better agent. Sadly, it’s the moment when Greer unplugs from his beaten and bruised surrogate and gets down and dirty in the physical world that both Willis’ performance, and the film itself, become almost tediously comfortable. Eschewing all pretensions towards the kind of profundity one might expect from such a Blade Runner-esque premise the second half of the film instead plumps for all out hokey action. ‘Bruce McClane’ punches his way, bloody-knuckled, towards the fairly obvious conclusion, saving the humanity from both evil plot and their own apathy and re-uniting with his physically and emotionally estranged wife. While the action sequences are deftly handled enough that you probably won’t be inspired to leave before the closing credits, the countdown to doomsday scenarios and endless body-swapping do make the film seem slightly desperate to keep you watching once you’ve become familiar with the film’s key ideas. Watching Surrogates is a bit like sitting down to watch Blade Runnerand switching over to Total Recall halfway through, with the result that it’s nowhere near as entertaining as either. Just as Total Recall took a story with a philosophical conundrum at its heart (what’s the difference between memory and experience) and made a highly enjoyable romp more famous for cheesy one-liners and three-titted martian whores than intelligent enquiry, Surrogates fails to escape the action movie baggage of its star. But frustratingly, neither does it fully embrace these inevitable audience expectations, despite having a set-up and visual style that could carry them easily. The film’s inability to fully commit to either one of the disparate approaches to sci-fi with which it flirts means that it ends up coming across as lightweight in comparison to the many films it invokes. Like the humans who stumble, blinking, from their stem-chairs into the light, once the skin-deep sheen has worn off you may well be left with a nagging craving for something a little more meaty. Rating: 5/10