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I, Robot

Fox // PG-13 // December 14, 2004
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Bill Gibron | posted December 13, 2004 | E-mail the Author
The whole notion of artificial intelligence, robotics and the human desire to play God (if only on a terse, technological level) are the very foundations upon which most of the best science fiction is founded. From the genre's most innovative writers to the pulp popularity of the comic book hack, the desire to recreate man in a mechanical image is the hypothetical Holy Grail of all science and research. The notion of automatons as servants or slaves, helpers or hindrance drives a great many speculative scenarios. And with real life companies such as Honda (inventor of Asimo) and Sony (creator of QRIO) pursuing the personal humanoid market, we will perhaps one day all live in a world where humans and robots live together in peace and positronic prosperity.

But if both fiction and fact have anything to teach us, it's that technology, for all its systematic exactitude, is still an incredibly undiscovered country. For all the good a subservient class of consumer-friendly motorized men would do, there truly could be unforeseen problems that would threaten the very fate of the human race itself. While such a statement seems hysterical at best, and just plain ludicrous at worst, the fact remains that we aren't sure what will happen once our first manmade entity opens its binary eyes, frees its predetermined mind and becomes self aware.

And if I, Robot, the latest film by visionary director Alex Proyas tells us anything, it is that even with a set of strict robotic "laws" in place, the threat from technology is real – and may come from an angle we can't even begin to understand. Had the movie stayed true to this ideal, it would have been a celebration of imagination and invention. Too bad it shambles over into standard Hollywood hype too often to stay solid.

It's 2035. Chicago is a massive metropolis on the cutting edge of technology. It is home to U.S. Robotics, main supplier of automatons internationally. The company is preparing to phase out their current NS4 line of 'product' to provide the public with the new, improved NS5 line. It's the dawn of a new age science in society. But then tragedy strikes. Dr. Alfred Lanning, father of modern robotics and founder of USR, dies of an apparent suicide. The police investigate, and at first, it does look like a case of self-destruction. But for Det. Del Spooner, certain facts just don't want to add up. With a natural suspicion bordering on bigotry for all machines, Spooner suggests a robot is responsible. At first, everyone scoffs. USR's product could never hurt a human: there are three laws pre-programmed into every processor that keep the mechanical entities from even considering harming people.

But when a rogue robot named Sonny is discovered hiding out in Lanning's lab, those nagging concerns come to the fore. Spooner will have to fight skepticism in his fellow law enforcement officers, the omnipresent power of USR and his own internal demons to discover the mystery of Dr. Lanning's death, and what part, if any, Sonny played in it. With the help of robot psychologist Susan Calvin, Del needs to uncover the hidden clues and crack this case. The fate of the human race may depend on it.

Visually arresting, philosophically inventive and just the slightest bit silly, I, Robot is a surprisingly good action adventure flick forged out of some contradictory creative resources. On the plus is Isaac Asimov, author of the stories upon which this film is (mostly) founded and creator of the three laws of robotics (along with some help from his editor, John Campbell). A direct response to the misrepresentation of technology in the 20s and 30s as a timebomb waiting to destroy humanity, Asimov hoped to lead the discussion out of the dark ages and into a more enlightened idealism. Joining him on the side of such salient suggestions is Alex Proyas, a fanciful, resourceful director with such cerebral eye candy celebrations as The Crow and Dark City to his credit. Proyas has always professed an undying love for the old-fashioned fiction of the past, a throwback to when fantasy was not solely based in violence and arcane vistas, but ideas and the infinite.

With a sci-fi pedigree as polished as this, and the innumerable advantages of modern moviemaking technology in support, what could possibly go wrong? Frankly, I, Robot provides the proof with rather obvious candidness. First, Asmiov's stories are only the "basis" for this film. You won't find a pissed off policeman, a humorless corporate villain or a robot named Sonny in Isaac's carefully considered canon. No, these elements are obvious inclusions by Hollywood screenwriters Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman. Neither scribe has that stellar a lineage – Vintar worked on the weak Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within while Goldsman is a hack in the most horrible tradition, torturing such tales as Batman and Robin, the revamp of Lost in Space, and the baneful A Beautiful Mind. Together, they create a narrative in which subtlety and sophistication are in short supply as the obvious hand of mainstream meddling steps in to make sure everything is easily digestible and form-fitted to I, Robot's superstar center – a.k.a. Will Smith.

The whole Big Willy jiggy jerry rigging is another potential problem for this robot rumpus. Where once he was a box office God, Smith's track record of late has been rather shaky. Ever since the dunderheaded debacle that was Wild Wild West, Will has seen his Tinsel Town value decline, what with the less than stellar showings for The Legend of Bagger Vance, Ali (Oscar nomination or not, the film is hugely flawed) and the unnecessary sequels to Men in Black and Bad Boys. In many ways, I, Robot continues that retread mentality while marking a kind of comeback for the one-time King of the Fourth of July. As Del Spooner, paranoid police detective with a misplaced hatred of all "canners" (his technic slur for robots), Smith actually shines, toning down the jive-talking jester routine while playing up his more troubled internal issues. Though he does occasionally toss in a misplaced quip here or there, they do feel like extensions of his character's personality, not Schwarzenegger style catchphrases perfectly marketed for mass repetition by middle schoolers. Thankfully, Smith is so near pitch perfect in I, Robot, that he single-handedly provides both the gravitas and gumption needed to make many of the more meandering parts survivable.

Some of that muddle comes from the casting of our remaining leads. The tepid shortcomings are fairly obvious from the very first time we see these performers onscreen. Bridget Moynahan may be someone's idea of a fetching, intelligent cyber geek, but she's nothing more than a blank, bland babe with potential paramour written all over her inarticulate puss. Constantly overshadowed by the hulking hardware she works with, Moynahan's Susan Calvin is really just an expositional device, given no more weight as a three-dimensional being than her necessary place to explain all the robo-speak. Bruce Greenwood has also done better work, be it as President Kennedy in Thirteen Days or as Dennis Wilson in Summer Dreams: The Story of the Beach Boys. Here, he is required to play an unrealistic red herring, an evil corporate crook who may or may not be trying to take over the world. Greenwood sure can grit his teeth and deliver the diatribes with decisive glee, but as a bad guy, he is all suggestion and subterfuge, never really making a menacing impact.

With this confab of humans helming our narrative, it is up to Smith, along with the machinery, to more or less save the day. Though horribly designed (they appear like a combination of the Kaminoans from the second Star Wars prequel, the super intelligent archeologist "aliens" in A.I. and the actual extraterrestrials in James Cameron's The Abyss), they have been retrofitted with a nice perplexing persona. Filled with consideration and condescension, seeming capable of acts both helpful and harmful, these clever creations of physical and digital effects really come alive onscreen. While you may question their components or the manner in which they are made, they do represent a near seamless collaboration between CGI and practical magic. Some of the animation in the action sequences may seem obvious, and we do get far too few human/robot one-on-ones for a film about the battle between man and machine, yet I, Robot still delivers on its summer movie promise. While perhaps not the best example of onscreen automaton (films as far back as Metropolis have offered more visual splendor) Sonny and his ilk are quite articulate in Proyas's world.

Problem is, you can tell that the movie wants to be more than it this. As the title suggests, I, Robot really hopes to debate the ethics in manufacturing identity and line-coding some sort of soul. Peppered throughout the car chases and fanciful fisticuffs are a series of questions about emotional and intellectual 'being', a desire to address the tenuous state of affairs that could result should true artificial freewill ever be made part of an advanced apparatus. Characters constantly discuss this ghost in the machine hypothesis, the notion that any being with basic knowledge will evolve and develop independent of its "programming", yet we never get the intellectual tone that this is actually what is going on in the film.

Instead, I, Robot occasionally feels like yet another variation on the Terminator/Skynet – Zion/Matrix manipulation, a war between mankind and microprocessor for control of the fate of the world. And though it prettys up the proceedings with lots of scrumptious optical luxury, I, Robot never really gets around to dealing with all the unanswered philosophical quandaries. Indeed, this is a movie that begs a basic question that it never gets around to truly dealing with: if humans created these new "lives", should they not pay some price when they inevitably go out of whack.

Indeed, you can occasionally sense the idealistic underpinning of I, Robot bucking like an unbroken bronco as it battles between something truly thoughtful and awe-inspiring and a pure buttered popcorn populist piece of forgettable filmmaking. As a director, Proyas purposefully pushes the harsh bright newness of his Chicago circa 2035. This is not another shadowy noir nocturne like The Crow or Dark City. Hoping to show that the brave world ahead will be more nuanced than outright "new", Alex provides his frames with a palette of gleaming whites and shimmering pastels to suggest infinite hope mixed with the indefiniteness of an ill-defined futurism. While we get the usual goofy car designs and super-sprawling urban skyscrapers (what city planner would ever tolerate a building that's 250 stories tall?) there are also some nice, novel touches (the "house" destroying machine, the killer nanite injection) that expand our horizons and keep us hoping for the best.

And in truth, I, Robot exceeds expectations as often as it fails to meet them. Hinted-at racism is avoided for more futile flashbacks. A passion for retro treats like sweet potato pie is passed off as characterization while a lack of megalomania makes an otherwise powerful person appear passive. The whodunit aspects of the story do keep us guessing, while the action sequences fail to deliver the fear factor necessary to engage us in our hero's possible fate. We never believe our protagonist is in real jeopardy, but otherwise, the set pieces are wonderful bits of adrenaline pumping execution. For every moment that has the potential to preach beyond the blockbuster basics (the broken down bridge horizon in the landfill Lake Michigan, the cruel cube at the heart of all the horror) we are treated to superfluous fluff and maudlin manipulation (the threat to a grandmother, the death of a child) to keep pushing us back into the realm of the ersatz-solid summer seat-filler. One day, someone will craft a truly masterful movie about the plight of robots in the reality of the human race (A.I. is the closest by far). Sadly, I, Robot is a missed opportunity. It is fun to follow along with and never dull or derivative. But when it comes to giving us a glimpse into the future, it's a missing motherboard away from being something truly special.

The Video:
Proyas is truly a painter with his camera, a lensman of incredible skill and awe-inspiring artistic merit. His attention to detail, his desire to fill the frame with as much amazing information as possible is one of the reasons why I, Robot looks so unbelievably good on DVD. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image radiates with a resplendent amount of color, while contrasts and crispness create untold depth and dramatics. This is basically a reference quality transfer, a picture pulsating with the pictorial passion and presence of its creator. Fox is to be commended for releasing the film in this fine visual form. Part of the joy in experiencing I, Robot is getting lost in Proyas's not too distant future, and this digital presentation allows us the opportunity to do so in astonishing, fascinating freshness.

The Sound:
There are several aural options here, and each one provides a true channel challenging experience – especially during the action sequences. You will feel like you're riding along with Smith as he battles the automobile-attacking robot hordes. While the Dolby Digital 5.1 DTS will definitely be the way to go for those with a high-end home theater, it is only slightly superior to the basic 5.1 configuration. Both offer a clean, crisp set of sonics without any annoying hiss, distortion or dropout. The dialogue is discernable and the various effects really add to the overall experience. As with most big budget Hollywood blockbusters, there tends to be more bombast than muted gradation in the audio (the score is one of the worst over-the-top offenders here), but overall, this is still a marvelous sounding, as well as looking, DVD.

The Extras:
Where Fox truly comes up short is in the bonus features department. Once you get past the trailers and the less than informative 12-minute 'making of' featurette, we aren't left with very much additional content. Proyas and Goldsman do sit down for a feature length commentary and, even with all its self-congratulatory rhetoric, it is still a very informative narrative. Both men have detailed rationalizations for every good/bad idea in the film and the battles between big budget moneymen and individuals flush with imagination is showcased in sensational specificity. Their conversation is filled with spoilers (you should really watch the movie before delving into this alternative audio track) and, on occasion, they do point to problems that could have been overcome with a more 'serious' approach to the subject matter.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the commentary is that it was recorded a full five weeks before the film was release theatrically, so both men have only test audience and study reactions to guide their discussion. It would be interesting to see how they responded to the criticism/acceptance the film received once it hit the theaters. Though by no means a comprehensive view of the film, this bonus almost makes up for the lack of any other recognizable content on the DVD.

Final Thoughts:
For a topic area as rich as robots and robotics, it is interesting to note the true lack of any serious, substantial cinematic discussion of their existence. Most film fans had a problem with Stephen Spielberg's A.I. because it focused more on the familial aspects of parenthood and love than the reality of it's loved/hated humanoid minority class. Something like Star Wars tosses off its mechas like so much stand-up, giving them the vast majority of the kooky comic relief instead of integrating them into the social structure. In many ways, I. Robot does feel like a first. It gives us glimpses of how a world would function with artificial beings as part of its population. It deals with – not too deeply, mind you – the ethics involved in giving 'life' to something devoid of the basics of true humanity. And it presents its propositions in a credible, creative manner.

Still, there is a big fat overblown Hollywood blockbuster banging at the door of perception, constantly throwing this entire production off its brain game. If there is a ghost in the machine in this movie, it is the desire to give the mainstream exactly what it wants, to the detriment of even the most interesting ideas. I, Robot is by no means a failure, but it makes us uncomfortable to think of how much better it could have been. Someday, someone will pat the proper homage to Asimov and his philosophies. Proyas and I, Robot only get it part right.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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