I have two nice things to say, and I will lead with one of them: the visual effects in Surrogates are well done, no two ways about it. One visual effect in particular: for much of the first part of the movie, Bruce Willis - bald, craggy Bruce Willis, in his mid-50s - is covered with a glossy CG sheen that makes him look smooth and young and just about exactly the way he did back in the late 1980s, only with sillier hair. And while this effect bothered me and creeped me out, I think it was in the way I was supposed to be creeped out - Hey, that's not Bruce Willis! He looks old now! - and not because of some Uncanny Valley problem with the unlifelike quality of the animation.

That nicety given its due, Surrogates is mainly a shambles, a failure of speculative fiction, of plot, and of good old fashioned action filmmaking. The filmmakers (Jonathan Mostow, of the wretched Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, working from a screenplay by Michael Ferris and John Brancato, a team responsible for not just T3, but Terminator Salvation and Catwoman too) hit a precariously narrow ridge of being bad in two exactly opposite directions, an anti sweet spot that really doesn't make any sense at all, but there it is, right on the screen in front of you. On the one hand, the movie is so wrapped up in world-building that it leaves no room for the story to develop with any kind of breathing room; on the other, the story it tells is so pointlessly complex that all of the world-building has to be glossed over as quickly as possible, skipping over the most essential details of exposition. One usually does not wish for a bad movie to be longer, but I can't help but think that Surrogates would have an infinitely stronger narrative if it had been given more than a breakneck 88 minutes to play in.

The basic nugget, which you know if you've seen any of the naggingly present ads, is that In The Future, there will be remarkably life-like robots that can be controlled by human users through neural hook-ups that allow the operator to feel everything the robot surrogate (or "surrey") feels. Because of this, virtually every human being has taken to living every moment of their life via a mechanical alter ego, among them Boston-based FBI Agent Tom Greer (Willis). Ah, but someone has figured out a way to kill the robot in a way that kills the human user, and this means that for the first time in years, there's a proper homicide for the cops to sink their teeth into.

For those lucky bastards who didn't see the advertisements (maybe I should call them unlucky; they stumbled into Surrogates without knowing what they were in for), the movie opens with a fairly nimble bit of whooshy background information, a montage that brassily starts "11 YEARS AGO" with the invention of machines you could control with your brain, and zips ahead through the major events in the intervening years: the creation of perfectly lifelike robots, their approval by the world's governments, their immediate widespread adoption by something like 99% of the population, and the immediate plummeting of crime and disease that goes along with a world where no human ever interacts with another. Oh, and the concurrent rise of an anti-surrogate movement led by the charismatic, violently revolutionary Prophet (Ving Rhames).

Setting aside for the moment the fact that the central mystery - who is responsible for this new surrogate-killing technology? - is both needlessly convoluted and rather easy to predict, Surrogates hinges on a single hook that made absolutely no sense to me, at least, and it ruined what would otherwise have been a thoroughly mediocre piece of crap: it is patently absurd to think that a technology as delicate and fussy and revolutionary as mentally-controlled humanoid robots so lifelike that you can't tell them from real people would, in a mere 11-year span, become so affordable that virtually everyone in America, at least, would own one; and secondarily (the movie at least attempts to answer this one), it's almost as absurd to think that virtually everyone would also decide that life as a surrogate is so damn swell that they never needed to interact with another human being ever, not even to do their laundry or buy milk. As hard sci-fi, the film's great misfire is to present a universe that simply cannot function, and if it can, we never ever get to find out how (for example, I'd love to know how children are supposed to come about in a culture founded on the idea that strangers never physically interact). Perhaps the original comic book series addresses some of these issues; I'd be surprised if it didn't because they are essential. As it stands, the movie presents a thoroughly impossible society like the ones in those heavily allegorical episodes of Star Trek, except that the filmmakers have forgotten to put in any allegory here.

(Okay, there might be some vague metaphor about internet usage and the anonymity of online communication. But I am going so extremely far out of my way to meet the film on that point that it damn well ought to invite me to crash on its couch).

Let us say that every one of these issues was answered in a satisfying way. That would leave a brainy sci-fi action movie made by a man with a proven inability in the genre; and Surrogates is clumsy enough to make T3 and U-571 seem almost respectable. It is not enough for Mostow to film the action scenes using that nice, contemporary manner of fragmenting the individual moments such that you can't really piece together the physical relationship of characters; nor that the action, even so chopped up, is curiously placid and flabby; no, the worst of all is that Mostow apparently has embarked upon a torrid storybook love affair with the Dutch angle, and one shot after another parades by, tilted hither and thither without any earthly reason for it besides the fact that it could be done. Maybe In The Future, because of surrogacy, they forget how to build level floors. That's as decent a justification as anything Mostow has to offer. If it's not as egregious as the same sin was in Roger Christian's notorious Battlefield Earth, it is only because the angles in Surrogates, though quite as frequent, are not so obscenely acute.

As I began with a good point, let me so end: the production design by Jeff Mann is actually quite nicely filled with throwaway details that lend the universe of the film a realistic quality that the screenplay denies it. You can almost tell how the world of Surrogates works just by carefully attending to how it looks, and letting the subtle details tell their own story. It's a fucking shame that the rest of the filmmaking team was so bad at actually providing Mann with a story worth telling.