“Surrogates,” the new Bruce Willis sci-fi flick directed by Jonathan Rostow, sketches out a brave new world where the plasticky digital-airbrush aesthetic of Photoshop and Ayumi Hamasaki album covers has triumphed over the imperfections of the meat body; humans lie in “Stim-chairs” all day plugged into sensors and goggles that allow them to control their lifelike robotic avatars (“surrogates”), which — just like the ones in online games — offer both anonymity and virtual physical perfection out in the big bad world. Kind of like “Avatar” without the “smurf” tribe, actually.

With its one slender premise, “Surrogates” has no right to be anything more than an especially big-budget “Twilight Zone” episode, but it manages some scenes of unnerving power and freakiness that push it way beyond the generic: A man laughing as his face is pummeled in by an enraged husband, because he knows his face isn’t real; the sexy blonde club vixen who seduces a young stud for the pleasure of her avatar controller, who turns out to be a fat, slovenly 50-something dude; a military command bunker where young gamerlike techies wage remote war using avatar soldiers on a very real battlefield somewhere across the planet. (This last bit is not far from the encroaching reality.)

The plot concerns a secret weapon that has the ability to not only deactivate avatars, but explode the heads of people who are plugged into them. This is not good, and a couple of detectives (played by Willis and Radha Mitchell) try to track down the device, only to find it has fallen into the hands of the Dread Zone, an enclave of crusty Luddites who believe, as their prophet (Ving Rhames) puts it, “We’re not meant to experience the world through the machine.”

Director Jonathan Rostow
Run Time 89 minutes
Language English
Opens Opens Jan. 22, 2010
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Director Terry Gilliam
Run Time 124 minutes
Language English
Opens Opens Jan. 23, 2010

If this sounds to you like one big reflection on Web 2.0 and our increasing predilection for the virtual over the real, you’d be correct. But it does make you tangle with the question — which “Avatar” largely ignored — how deep does this rabbit hole go? If days are spent living in a virtual world, what does this mean for the physical body? Does virtuality fulfill our basic, real needs for human connection? Or is it the otaku (fan-boy) preference for the opposite of that, an isolated rejection of the real and preference for fantasy?

The first time you see Willis’ surrogate up on the screen you will gasp; I’m still not sure whether it was him under makeup, heavily retouched by digital postproduction, or some kind of CG simulacrum like those in “Beowulf.” And that is entirely in keeping with the film’s point. A final irony is contained in the music playing over the closing credits, alt-metal band Breaking Benjamin’s “I Will Not Bow,” a track that’s clearly used Auto-tune software to replace every imperfection of the human voice with a sleek, computer-corrected artificiality.

Given that Terry Gilliam’s last film was shut down by a series of production disasters (“Lost In La Mancha”), it seemed like doom once again when lead actor Heath Ledger suddenly passed away while shooting “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.”

After some deliberation, Gilliam decided to finish the film, with Ledger’s A-list actor friends — Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell — stepping up to fill in for him as a final tribute. Ledger mostly completed his character’s scenes in the “real” half of the film, so the others step in to take his place in the fantasy sequences, a solution that works seamlessly.

“Doctor Parnassus” is pure, unrefined Gilliam: madly creative and risk-taking, indulging in flights of fancy and whimsy, and also a bit of a shambles. In some respects it’s a remix of his 1990 work, “The Adventures of Baron Muhnchausen,” with its riffs on the power of tall tales (and lies), camp stage shows and fairy-tale dreamworlds, but there are clear echoes of Gilliam’s other work as well; a chorus of bobbies in drag recalls his Monty Python days, while the Dickensian feel conjured up in present-day London is similar to what Gilliam pulled off in New York City in “The Fisher King.”

The story involves a traveling show called the Imaginarium, run by the wizened mystic and alcoholic, Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer, looking very Dumbledorian). Assisted by his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), her admirer, Anton (Andrew Garfield), and caustic dwarf Percy (Verne Troyer), they put on shows of wonder and mystery to the general indifference of the public.

Anyone who is enticed onto the stage, though, can walk through a magical mirror that leads to worlds created by their own imagination, which can be good or bad. Doctor Parnassus, a modern-day Faust, has done a deal with Mr. Nick, the devil (and casting Tom Waits in this role was a stroke of genius), who lurks in these worlds, capturing souls that go astray.

Ledger stumbles in as a confused amnesiac, Tony Shepherd, who’s found hanging from London Bridge and rescued by Parnassus’ crew. He attaches himself to the troupe, but a group of Russian mobsters who come after him suggest his past contains some dark secrets, things that eventually bubble up in the Imaginarium.

The performances are broad, the plot meanders, but “Parnassus” does tie up all its loose ends in one satisfying climax, which suggests that no matter how many stories you spin, your own bulls–t will eventually catch up with you.

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