A film review by Craig J. Koban

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2004, PG-13, 115 mins.

Spooner: Will Smith / Dr. Susan Calvin: Bridget Moynahan / Lance Robertson: Bruce Greenwood / Lt. John Bergin: Chi McBride / Sonny: Alan Tudyk / Dr. Alfred Lanning: James Cromwell / Chin: Peter Shinkoda / Sarah Lloyd: Emily Tennant

Directed by Alex Proyas /  Written by Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman / Suggested by Isaac Asimov's book

I will have to make a brave admission at the beginning of this review:  I have never read any of Isaac Asimov’s work that has inspired Alex Proyas’s new film I, ROBOT.  Maybe that’s a good thing.  As the final end credit title card tells us, the film was “suggested by the works of Isaac Asimov,” and all viewers, whether they are virgins to his work or not, should take that credit with a great amount of credence and understanding.  I think loyalists of his work will be sincerely disappointed by what they see here. 

The film is only loosely inspired by the most famous and justly admired robot stories in all of science fiction, Isaac Asimov's '40s series (later collected in his 1950 book "I, Robot") about robots, the company that produces these beings and Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, which govern their behaviour.  This is not a direct adaptation, like LORD OF THE RINGS.  Rather, the film is a conglomeration, from what I have read, of a few of the characters, ideas, and of course the Three Laws that screenwriter’s Jeff Vinter and Akiva Goldsman use as a framework to tell their story.  What emerges, at least for me, is an exciting, exhilarating, and technically dazzling summer entertainment that still manages to have some ideas in it.  And since it has Will Smith stars in it, has big explosions and wise cracks, and tons of action…you sure as hell know that’s its July and time for a big summer film.  For the most part, I, ROBOT delivers. 

Will Smith stars as Sonny, a brash, young, and rebellious Chicago Police Department detective in the year 2035.  Despite the fact that he is African-American (and on the hopes that racism and bigotry will be eliminated in the future), he still has deep hatred and mistrust of all robots.  Robots, in the world of the future, are all among us and walk freely everywhere.  They are essentially workers, doing the jobs that we need done but don’t seem to want to do anymore, essentially…manual labour.  Spooner’s mistrust is so deep that he runs down and tackles a running robot at the beginning of the film when “it” was only trying to provide medication to its master.  Spooner apologizes to the master, but not to the robot.  Funny, considering the dark and problematic history that Smith’s race has had with enslavement and servitude in America, you’d think he’d be more sensitive and empathetic to the robots, but never mind.  His reasons for his hatred are well detailed, and will not be spoiled by me. 

Spooner then turns to an investigation into a mysterious death of top robot scientist Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell).  Spooner, since he always is suspicious of robots, seems to sense that there is more to his death then the suicide everyone else seems to think there is at Lanning’s company, the worldwide leader in robot manufacturing.  The company’s CEO (Bruce Greenwood) has recently announced that the company is going to triple the robot population by flooding the market with the NS-5 Automated Domestic Robot.  This only worries Spooner more after he has an unexpected meeting with Sonny, a new NS-5 model who seems to have an unhealthy relationship with the death of Lanning. 

This, of course, appears preposterous.  When Spooner interrogates workers at the company, Like Greenwood’s character and a young scientist Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) they tell him his crazy.  Why?  Because it’s impossible for a robot to break the three laws of robotics which are, for the uninitiated:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Seems fairly full proof.  Yet, even after taking “Sonny” back to the police station and personally interrogating him, a screw or microchip definitely seems to be lose.  Sonny apparently not only has feelings, but has dreams.  Calvin’s job, it seems, is to work at making the robots more “human”.  This especially does not help matters, considering  where the plot advances to later.  Needless to say, no one believes Smith, especially his boss (Chi McBride) as one of those age-old and stereotypical screen police bosses that never believes the hero and tells him to take stress leave but the hero does not, becomes a subsequent loose cannon, and the boss takes his badge away.  Ya know, that type of movie police boss.

Is Spooner nuts?  Well, his irrational hatred of all robots seems just that (this, of course, is later explained in the film’s third act) and, well, Sonny seems like a fine chap…I mean…robot.  He (or it) does have the occasional mental fit, but there’s and earnestness, poignancy, and quiet grace and humility in his voice and meagre, gentle demeanour (if the Hal 9000 and C-3PO had a love child, it would surely be Sonny).  Unfortunately, Spooner uncovers more evidence of a possible link with robots and the death of the manufacturer, and it does not help matters when he is nearly killed a few times in the film by hundreds of the NS-5’s.  Nevertheless, he continues bravely forward with the aid of Calvin and uncovers a conspiracy that will change the way the world views robots forever.

As a sci-fi noir mystery/thriller, I, ROBOT is an action-packed, visually astounding, sometimes well written and oftentimes fairly thought provoking.  For example, since the laws of robotics clearly imply that robots are incapable of harming another human being, there would be no laws for robots killing, but what if a robot did kill…they essentially would not be breaking any law.  A lot of credit needs to be given to director Alex Proyas, whose previous film DARK CITY was also a brilliant combination of new age science fiction and film noir.  I, ROBOT is not nearly as daring, unique, engaging, and enticing as DARK CITY, but on its levels the film achieves what it wants and is effective. 

Proyas is a master of visuals (just look at the wonderful eye candy in THE CROW and DARK CITY) and he spared obviously no expense and making the world of 2035 Chicago credibly and real.  It’s like a considerably lighter version of BLADE RUNNER that fuses both the old and the new.  Some of the establishing shots are quite awe-inspiring, with the vast monorails, skycraft, and towering skyscrapers.  The film is just an awesome spectacle to look at.  The film’s action also has a lot of punch (if not suffering a bit by being  derivative; some of the action feels MATRIX inspired), but many of the action set pieces are virtuoso in the way they seamlessly blend effects and live action (especially a car chase scene where Smith tries to shake off hundreds of robots).

The best visual effect in the film is the character of Sonny himself.  Sonny was inspired by the movements on set and later voiced by actor Andy Tudyk, and the result is quite inspiring.  Never before has a robot that’s a complete special effect felt more like a real character.  Tudyk brings a lot of warmth and compassion in the character that, like Gollum from LORD OF THE RINGS, proves that an effective marriage of special effects and acting can produce an equally satisfying character, one that interacts with others and often steals scenes from them.  Sonny is a real treat in the film, and his character works well in the film noir framework of the piece…you're never are quite sure where his exact loyalties lie.

On the human side, Will Smith is also very good as his cagey, Dirty Harry-esque police investigator.  Thankfully, Smith plays down his usual wisecracking self and portrays him more or less straight.  He does have moments of humour that appropriately warms the tone of the film a bit (especially when he sneezes at the unconvincing comments of another character and says that he’s allergic to B.S.)  He does, more or less, ground the character in reality and is good and exposing some of the more sensitive issues that the character has buried deep down.  Spooner may look like a hip-hop PI, but there are lots of things going on beneath that cool and confident exterior.  Smith surprised me here and was not as distracting as I thought he would be in the film.

The movie does not work all of the time.  The character of Susan Calvin seems like more of a superfluous female character added to the mix than a well-rounded and fleshed-out person.  She is more or less a plot device that serves the need of providing a catalyst for Smith’s actions.  Bruce Greenwood, as the Robotic CEO, is painfully underused as a would-be antagonist.  He’s got the tone right, but he’s so severely underwritten that he’s barely a presence in the film.  The final portion of the film also goes into action and CGI overdrive and concludes on an overly hopeful and preposterous note. 

Yet, there is so much power and command over the visuals that Alex Proyas displays and a genuine interest in the more fascinating aspects of the story to keep one entertained.  I, ROBOT is not meant to be a sincere and comprehensive adoption of Asimov’s work.  Rather, it takes several elements from his works to create an exciting summer film that, some of the time, is as compelling as it is action-packed.  On the levels of a typical Will Smith summer blockbuster, its miles removed from his previous disaster MEN IN BLACK II and the atrocious BAD BOYS 2.  I, ROBOT is fun, absolutely breath-taking to look at, and provides an intriguing look at the future.  I think the First Law of going to see this film should be:  Forget the Asimov literary works and just take in this engaging murder mystery and enjoy.

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