Breakdown (’97), an above-average Kurt Russell thriller, convinced me that its director, Jonathan Mostow, was a skilled and disciplined helmer of high-end Bs. I was doubly persuaded three years later when his next, U-571 (’00), came along. And then my enthusiasm waned slightly with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (’03). Now he’s back after a six-year lull with Surrogates, a cyber-replicant thriller with Bruce Willis that opens today.

The critical reaction is mixed (50% at Metacritic, and 46% among the RT hoi polloi) but the premise is terrific and Variety‘s Todd McCarthy is calling it “intense and eerily plausible.”

Mostow’s “smart speculative suspenser imagines a time when people can live through ideal versions of themselves while they sit wired up at home,” he notes. “Effective science fiction often reflects the preoccupations and anxieties of the moment when it is made, and Surrogates, based on a graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, certainly speaks to the way people today increasingly live on their computers and other electronic devices and project themselves into the world through them.

“The idea that one day we may need to choose between living life directly or virtually provides the dramatic tension for the script by Mostow’s Terminator 3 collaborators John Brancato and Michael Ferris.

Surrogates distinguishes itself from countless other thematically overlapping films by being not about robots run amok, but about humans seduced by the easy life; humanity here has ‘advanced’ so far that it has become subordinate to its substitute.

“As a cautionary sci-fier, it’s not all that far removed from such classics as The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and if eyebrows are raised over the issue that Surrogates runs only 88 minutes, it’s worth remembering that the those two ’50s originals ran just 92 and 80 minutes, respectively.