The last time Jonathan Mostow stood behind a camera, the franchise -- "Terminator" -- and the production budget -- $200 million -- scarcely could have been bigger. Following a six-year absence, the director is back in theaters with a much smaller property (an adaptation of a little-known graphic novel) and a fraction of his "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" price tag.
All the same, Mostow's "Surrogates" has something to prove and, the director hopes, something to say about our addiction to technology. Opening Friday, the futuristic Bruce Willis thriller about humans and their robot proxies arrives at a thorny time.
It is the first Walt Disney Co. release following the company's Sept. 15 sacking of studio chief Dick Cook, and "Surrogates" is one of the very few adult-oriented dramas the family-focused studio makes in any year. The production itself was not always easy.
Two senior Disney executives, speaking on condition that they not be named because they were criticizing their own movie, said that star Bruce Willis -- who hasn't been in a major studio production for two years and whose recent box-office performance outside "Die Hard" movies has been uninspiring -- did not get along well with Mostow and that the results were visible on screen.
"Everybody wants their movie to be successful enough so that they can work again. But this movie wasn't that expensive a movie," the 47-year-old filmmaker says of his $80-million production. "In a world where they are making $200-million movies, I can't imagine that this is a make-or-break thing. I've made movies for $1 million and I've done movies for a lot more," says Mostow, whose previous action films include 1997's "Breakdown" and 2000's "U-571."
Audience tracking surveys suggest "Surrogates" could open in first place at the box office, with projected weekend ticket sales of about $20 million. It would be among the better openings for Willis outside of a "Die Hard" movie, about double the premieres for the actor's "Perfect Stranger" in 2007 ($11.2 million), 2006's "16 Blocks" ($11.9 million) and 2005's "Hostage" ($10.2 million). The other new films in wide release are "Fame" and "Pandorum," neither of which are expected to do that well.
Mostow believes that the "Surrogates" story -- in the near future, people never have to leave their homes because they can live, work and party vicariously through cosmetically flawless, robotic surrogates -- could prove especially timely in an era when people are so tethered to technology they scarcely can go a minute without checking their iPhones.
"It is addressing in some sense this generalized anxiety we have about technology," Mostow says. "It's easy and fun to use, but what is it costing us?"
"Surrogates," adapted by John Brancato and Michael Ferris from Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele's graphic novel of the same name, stars Willis as Greer, an FBI agent looking into the murders of several surrogates and their human masters. Like most of the world's population, Greer has two halves: His better-looking (except, it must be said, for the blond toupee) surrogate is controlled by his stay-at-home, somewhat grizzled, real self. The Stepford-pretty robots (including Greer's FBI sidekick, played by Radha Mitchell) have helped eliminate crime and racism, but their human operators have even less personal contact than modern-day adults who play World of Warcraft all day and night.
Greer is increasingly melancholy over the disconnect, as is the Prophet (Ving Rhames), who has established robot-free reservations. "We're not meant to experience the world through a machine," the Prophet implores his followers.
"The graphic novel touched on this idea of pursuit of physical perfection -- the lengths that people will go to achieve some idealized version of their physical appearance -- coupled with this idea of technology and how it is swallowing us up. It posed this question: Can you live your life without leaving your home?" Mostow says.
"There have been thousands of movies about robots, but they've always been sentient. Here the robots are just tools."
The story also appealed to Mostow's filmic fascination with heavy metal. "Breakdown," the movie that put the director on the map, focused on what happened to a couple when their SUV conked out and they weree menaced by a big-rig driver, and "U-571" looked at the Allied takeover of a German sub in World War II. Then came "Terminator 3."
"I made a robot movie about machines the last time," Mostow says, "and I believe this is a robot movie about people -- and that it will be perceived that way."
Mostow, who has four children, has tried to balance work with family, which he says is partly responsible for his long hiatus from the multiplex. He came close to directing "Hancock," but many other projects he's been linked to -- "Swiss Family Robinson," "Sub-Mariner," "Real Steal" and "Confessions of a Little League Coach" -- never amounted to much more than a headline in Hollywood's trade newspapers.
"People might look at my resume and think that I don't work all that frequently," he says, "but I made a conscious decision to make a movie every three years. I get so involved from the get-go I can't work faster. Moving forward, I am going to speed up."
Despite what the Disney executives contend, Mostow said his relationship with Willis was fine.
"Bruce is a professional, and he gave a strong performance. I admire Bruce as an actor." A spokesman for Willis said: "Bruce has no problems with Jonathan Mostow at all. And he also thinks [Willis] did a very good job in the movie."
If there's one thing Mostow says he'll take away from "Surrogates" -- in addition to making sure he and his family don't spend more time online than they do speaking to one another -- it's that he's ready to make a movie that doesn't involve servos and solenoids.
"I don't want to be the guy where the studio executive shouts to his assistant, 'Get me the guy who does robot movies!' "