Surrogates, Jonathan Mostow, 88 mins, (12A)<br/>Creation, Jon Amiel, 108 mins, (PG)<br/>The Soloist, Joe Wright, 117 mins, (12A)

Willis with a full head of hair? At last, sci-fi does the decent thing
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The Independent Culture

Jonathan Mostow was the director of Terminator 3, so he might not be the first person you'd entrust with an action movie about human-looking robots, but that's just one reason why Surrogates is such a pleasant surprise.

It's set in a near- future where most of the world's population lives vicariously through remote-controlled androids called "surrogates". While their owners sit at home, plugged safely and snugly into virtual-reality terminals, the surrogates – which tend to be younger, better-looking versions of their operators – are out and about in the world. But then – there's always a "but then" – someone develops a gun that can kill people by zapping their surrogates, and it's up to Bruce Willis's FBI agent to investigate.

Based on a graphic novel, the film has the perfect sci-fi premise for a time when many of us spend half our waking hours online, and when the media's obsession with youth and beauty shows no sign of waning. One of the film's best jokes is that Willis's surrogate has a full head of blond hair and skin as smooth as a non-stick frying pan, while the flesh-and-blood version is bald, wrinkled, and as thick around the waist as any Hollywood star's ego would allow.

Surrogates doesn't quite have the scale or the vision to match its closest competitors, Blade Runner and The Matrix, but the screenwriters have tremendous fun examining how such androids would affect every aspect of society – from police work and warfare to drug use and sports – without ever slowing the pace of what is essentially a taut, hardboiled detective yarn. The relentless speed of Surrogates' concepts and plot twists will frustrate some viewers, but, for all its shoot-outs and car chases, it's a welcome change to see a sci-fi film which asks for your attention with its ideas instead of demanding your attention with explosions.

Creation declares in an opening caption that it's going to tell the story of how Charles Darwin came to write On the Origin of Species, but, in fact, for the bulk of the film, most of the book is already written. Darwin (Paul Bettany) has had his Eureka! moments and transcribed his research, but he's too distracted to dot the Is and cross the Ts. As the film jumps between several time periods, with only the receding of Darwin's hairline to indicate where we are, it teases out some of the reasons behind his writer's block.

In many respects, it's a sophisticated, honourable and touching drama, but it does Darwin a disservice by prioritising the death of his daughter, Annie, above all else.

It's this bereavement, the film concludes, that is holding him back from finishing his masterwork, and yet he can come to terms with it simply by sitting down and talking to his wife (played by Bettany's offscreen wife, Jennifer Connelly, who never nails her English accent).

It's all a bit Oprah – that is, far too basic for a man who understood the complexity of life better than almost anyone else in history.

The week's other middlebrow true-life drama is The Soloist, Joe Wright's follow-up to Atonement. It stars Robert Downey Jr as Steve Lopez, an LA Times columnist who gets chatting to a mentally ill homeless man, Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), and learns that this muttering wreck, wrapped in eight layers of tattered clothing, is a gifted cellist who dropped out of Juilliard. Lopez writes about him in his column, and then tries to secure Ayers an apartment and medical treatment.

There's something distasteful about the film's suggestion that it's more scandalous for a classical musician to be homeless than an ordinary mortal, but you can see how it might be a hook for a newspaper column. A two-hour film is a different matter, though, and The Soloist simply doesn't have enough of a narrative to justify its running time. Wright fills in the gaps with material concerning the decline of the newspaper industry and the transporting power of music, but in doing so he's admitting that there isn't much to say about Lopez and Ayers themselves.

Also Showing: 27/09/2009

The Crimson Wing (78 mins, PG)

Nature documentary about the flock of more than a million flamingos that gathers every year on a Tanzanian salt lake. The footage is glorious, but the pseudo-Biblical script, read by Mariella Frostrup, makes you pine for David Attenborough. And didn't we once get this sort of thing as a short B-movie before the main film came on?

Fame (107 mins, PG)

Alan Parker's 1980 hit is remade for the High School Musical generation, so the original's ghetto settings, racial tension, drugs, abortion and tortured sexuality have all been bleached out.

Management (93 mins, 15)

Steve Zahn stars as a motel night manager who takes a shine to Jennifer Aniston, right, as a travelling saleswoman. Breezy romantic comedy that's an odd but likeable mix of indie naturalism and Hollywood wackiness.

Born in '68 (170 mins, 15)

French soap opera about a group of implausibly good-looking Parisian students setting up a commune in the 1960s, and their grown-up offspring in the 1990s.

Jack Said (100 mins, 18)

Very bad mockney gangster thriller.