2009 is the year when "based on the original graphic novel" is something that is no longer a mark of quality. The graphic novel was once the lone source of new-found creativity that spurred Hollywood, but the good ones are now almost all taken or unfilmable. This leaves the niche, small ones, and as all comic fans know, they're a bit hit and miss. I haven't read the Surrogates comic, but the film is overall an enjoyable, albeit formulaic, sci-fi B-movie that is watchable once.
The plot is silly, and the writing laughably bad at times, but the combined forces of Jonathan Mostow's speedy direction and Bruce Willis' action face keep the film from getting tedious - something that it needs in spades. The writing, in fact, is puerile to the extent of dropping below B-movie standards at times, but what saves the film is that Mostow never forgets what he is meant to deliver. The thrills come fast and easy, and the action remains steadfast in its inherent predictability.
A story set in a world where almost every human being stays at home tied to an electronic console that lets him venture out in (as well as completely control) attractive looking robots called "surrogates" had a lot of potential for social commentary. When detective Tom Greer (Willis) investigates the first homicide case in years and gets stuck in a never-ending spiral of exploring the world as it really is, the situation is ripe to comment on the American way of life amidst the utopia-turned-dystopia.
The screenplay, however, has no room for allegory, commentary, or even observation. District 9 this ain't. The writing restricts itself to making this another Demolition Man, and giving Willis something to grimace at every now and then. It takes a veteran - of turkeys as well as good films - like Willis to mouth these lines that range from jejune to laughably schlocky, and it takes every ounce of Mostow's limited arsenal of pacing, shot selection and leading his actors down the right path, to save it.
Despite the lack of depth in the writing, Mostow's inexorable search for some meaning is commendable as well. The surrogate industry is a stark commentary on the media-created obsession with perfect beauty. Told purely through his choice of visuals - the surrogates are airbrushed and flawless, yet vacuous, versions of real people - he tells an interesting story about the society that exists in his future.
Before the plot takes over and it is time to save the world (and chase a weapon that looks like a torch), Mostow lovingly crafts his world, choosing surprisingly perfect visuals such that the immersion is complete. The action itself is serviceable; it may lack emotional punch, but it certainly is inventive.
Likewise the FX choices: CG is mostly employed to create a believable world, and that is where it is at its most impressive. The action sequences benefit from the increased spending on CGI, and like the overall action, serve their purpose without obscuring detail.
Willis carries whatever remains of the film on his dependable shoulders. He is both a slick, smooth hirsute surrogate, and a bald, tired real guy, and he gives both roles his all. The grimace is intact, and the physicality he brings to his performance serves as the best marker for the transition - both in his character, and in the film's tone.
This is an impressive film considering how bad the writing is, and how utterly B-movie the whole proceedings feel. It would have been far better if they had not sacrificed meaning for muscle and allegory for action. Depending on your taste for science fiction you may dislike it or find it okay - it's certainly nothing remarkable, but it's fun, light, quick to digest, and does not outlive its welcome, however devoid of nutrition it may be. Just like your popcorn.