Hollywood’s lat­est stab at the tech-dri­ven “high con­cept” thriller goes through the motions in slam-bang style and still man­ages to feel dead-on-arrival.   In Surrogates, Bruce Willis plays his umpteen­th vari­a­tion on The Grizzled Cop Haunted By A Tragic Backstory in a future where the major­i­ty of human life func­tions are ful­filled by the title devices, super-high-tech androids that allow peo­ple to expe­ri­ence all the sen­sa­tions of life with­out any of the pain or dan­ger.

Unfortunately, there are peo­ple who are unhap­py with this state of affairs and one of them has cre­at­ed a zap-gun that not only fries sur­ro­gates but also melts the brains of their users into pud­dles of warm tapi­o­ca.  Willis and his part­ner (a typ­i­cal­ly pro­fes­sion­al Radha Mitchell) are plunged into a future-shock detec­tive sto­ry, try­ing to retrieve the weapon as they deal with the reclu­sive inven­tor of the sur­ro­gates (a sleep­walk­ing James Cromwell), a lud­dite cult lead­er in dreads and a bushy beard (Ving Rhames, also sleep­walk­ing) and the oblig­a­tory Corporate and Military Conspiracies.

If that plot sum­ma­ry sound­ed rather ‘by the num­bers,’ rest assured, it is.  This is the inher­ent prob­lem of Surrogates — a fas­ci­nat­ing high-tech con­ceit with lots of promise is used as win­dow-dress­ing for the most sim­plis­tic and banal of detec­tive sto­ries.  It is based on a comic book but I imag­ine the source mate­ri­al was heav­i­ly sim­pli­fied to reach the low­est-com­mon-denom­i­na­tor sto­ry­telling we get here.

The plot is pop­u­lat­ed with so few char­ac­ters that guess­ing the big plot reveals doesn’t take much effort and the char­ac­ter-back­sto­ry stuff for Willis’s char­ac­ter is rote that one can prac­ti­cal­ly fin­ish his dia­logue for him when he opens up about his secret trau­mas.   Plot twists that are sup­posed to make the audi­ence gasp instead inspire shrugs of “oh, it’s real­ly that sim­ple?” dis­ap­point­ment and the way the film’s tech­nol­o­gy works will make any­one with sci­en­tific or com­put­er-relat­ed knowl­edge tear their hair out in frus­tra­tion (seri­ous­ly, high tech­nol­o­gy hasn’t been this stu­pid in design and exe­cu­tion since Eagle Eye).

To make mat­ters worse, the sto­ry fails to work in the kind of inter­est­ing details that could have dis­tract­ed from the story’s many prob­lems.  For instance, Willis looks very sim­i­lar to his sur­ro­gate.  The only dif­fer­ences are Real Willis has a goa­tee and Robot Willis has a crap­py toupee  (what the hell kind of future is it where your ide­al­ized self can’t get a semi-con­vinc­ing head of hair?).  The sto­ry would have had an extra lev­el of inter­est if Willis’s robot self was the bête noire for a Paul Giamatti-style schlub and the oth­er char­ac­ters had a sim­i­lar lev­el of dis­con­nect between their human and robot selves.  When the sto­ry does make efforts to provide such details, the result are either pre­dictable — a low-rent sur­ro­gate shop own­er acts like a used-car sales­man — or unin­ten­tion­al­ly fun­ny, like a  scene where sur­ro­gates get high at a par­ty by zap­ping them­selves with a bong-shaped cat­tle prod.

That said, Surrogates isn’t unwatch­able.  Director Jonathan Mostow pro­vides sharp pac­ing,  the expect­ed visu­al gloss and han­dles the fre­quent action set­pieces with a craftsman’s skill.  The film’s fusion of CGI, ani­ma­tron­ics and pros­thet­ic effects is pret­ty seam­less through­out and sells the film’s tech­ni­cal con­cepts bet­ter than the writ­ing does.

Finally, and most impor­tant­ly, Willis nav­i­gates his char­ac­ter­i­za­tion with the skill of a movie star (as usu­al, he’s bet­ter than his mate­ri­al and his work makes one wish he’d pick bet­ter scripts).  That said, the sheer com­pe­tence of this enter­prise can’t over­come its woe­ful short­com­ings in the inspi­ra­tion, com­plex­i­ty and ambi­tion depart­ments.  As a result, Surrogates ends up feel­ing like a real­ly over­priced straight-to-video flick.