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Bonni McCoy, C&EN Contributing Editor

Surrogates Poster "Surrogates" is what happens when a cool, timely concept for a movie gets sucked up in Hollywood's mighty engine and never fully recovers.

Director Jonathan Mostow ("Terminator 3," "Breakthrough") has created a sci-fi thriller, set in 2017, in which the world is inhabited by fit, attractive, human-looking robots. Each "surrey" is controlled by its own operator; hooked up with electrodes on high-tech Laz-E-Boys; it's a population that's opted to live vicariously through its machines in numb but risk-free bliss.

Not everyone's off the hook. FBI agent Tom Greer—a skillful Willis playing both his surrogate and himself—and Agent Peters (Mitchell) find themselves investigating a rare double homicide. It seems someone's out to kill Leonard Canter (Cromwell), an ex-CEO of VSI, the company responsible for creating the culture of surrogates. After all, he does have a flock of enemies, the Dreads (aka "meatbags"), a technology-loathing coalition determined to resist the prevailing ethos.

Kudos to the production team for creating a credible, nuanced world of surrogates. They're robots, so it's a place where everyone has ramrod posture, eerily similar gaits, and a low blink-to-stare ratio. Charging devices are located in subways and along sidewalks, discount body shops can be found in the low-rent district, and beauty parlors offer never-before-considered options. It's a culture with its own jargon and a unique technique for getting "high."

All of which makes it even more disappointing when "Surrogates" loses its soul about one-third in, devolving into an incoherent whodunit as it leaps from one plot turn to the next.

Mastow keeps action fans interested with a couple of slam-bang car and helicopter chases, but these, peppered as they are with cheesy "Matrix"-like acrobatics, minimize the seriousness of the movie's underlying concept. As does the Dreads' leader, The Prophet (Rhames), a cartoonish portrait reminiscent of a corrupt evangelist, who (along with the rest of the cast) is saddled with the kind of banal dialogue that makes 8th grade English teachers weep on Sunday nights.

Moments of grace arrive when Greer tries to persuade wife Maggie (Pike) to abandon her surrogate so they might together confront their grief in having lost a son. Unfortunately, the poignancy of these scenes stands in awkward contrast to the high-voltage film's otherwise erratic rhythms and throwaway plot, leaving viewers to crave a much different movie, one that takes the time to explore the intriguing psychological and ethical issues implicit in a world of surrogates.

"Surrogates" also comes up short in its depiction of the emerging field of cybernetics, which is too bad because Disney actually goes to some length to establish its scientific street cred. For an Internet featurette, it lined up Homayoon Kazerooni, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, who informs us that "the interpretation of getting brain signals on simple tasks is to some extent worked out."

Kazerooni's comment echoes a well-known 2007 study led by Duke University's resident neuroscientist Miguel Nikoleli in which a monkey's brain was implanted with electrodes, permitting scientists to "read its thoughts." First, Nikoleli trained the monkey to play a computer game using a joystick. Next, he recorded the activity of the hundreds of brain cells involved in movement. Last, he translated the biological recordings into the language of the computer and connected the monkey's brain to a computer that drove a robotic arm. The computer read the monkey's thoughts and made the robotic arm move in exactly the same way as the monkey's.

Pretty impressive, but what happened next laid the foundation for the field's current direction: As Nikoleli said in a BBC "Horizon" news clip, "The monkey stopped moving her arm. The brain finally was freed from the body. It could now control the robotic arm by thought alone."

James Canton, a futurist who also appears in the Disney featurette, predicts that the science will advance to the level of sophistication depicted in the film: "I think within 10 years you're going to see the world of the surrogates."

However, Reel Science contacted Arthur Schwartz, a professor of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh, who begs to differ. "We have a long way to go," he says. "There is a lot of basic science that hasn't even begun that will be needed to intercept higher order neural processing related to thoughts, emotions, memory, etc., never mind just trying to interpret and produce decent movement and sensation. We are nowhere close to getting prosthetic vision. The bottom line is you would have to have a good understanding of brain function to make this happen, and we really don't have even a rudimentary idea at this point."

Despite its flaws, "Surrogates" raises thought-provoking questions about overuse of technology and the consequences of escaping into artificially created lives. That we can relate so readily to the dystopia presented on screen says much about the extent to which we're aware of our human vulnerabilities and how easy it is to become the prisoners and slaves of our own fancy toys.