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I, Robot (2004) Print E-mail
Friday, 16 July 2004
This is not, repeat not, based on Isaac Asimov’s collection of short stories of the same title. The movie does use his famous “Three Laws of Robotics” and generally treats them with respect; a couple of characters come from Asimov, too, notably Dr. Susan Calvin, here played somewhat stiffly by Bridget Moynahan. Asimov fans needn’t fear that his ideas have been trashed. And the movie itself is reasonably entertaining and spectacularly well produced.

The script was originally titled “Hardwired” and had nothing to do with Asimov. When Alex Proyas, a long-time science fiction reader, was hired to direct, he had rewrites done that incorporated Asimov’s ideas. The story is credited to Jeff Vintar (who wrote “Hardwired”); he also cowrote “Final Fantasy” and is adapting Asimov’s “Foundation” books to the screen. The co-writer of the final script is Akiva Goldsman, who’s had an erratic career: he wrote “A Beautiful Mind” but also “Batman Forever.”

As a murder mystery, it’s hit-and-miss. Some clues are planted very cleverly; others are treated so ineptly that it’s obvious that someone knows and cares little about mystery story logic. For example, police detective Del Spooner (Will Smith) gets an important clue by accident, when his grandmother (Adrian L. Ricard) happens to say something that causes the “That’s it! Now I know!” reaction common in scripts written by someone who knows nothing about mystery story structure, and doesn’t care enough to learn.

Technically, the film is dazzling. There are streets scenes full of people and robots, all going about their business, and the robots look precisely as real as the people do. Daytime cityscapes—the setting is Chicago in 2035—look a bit manufactured, but the movie features the first nighttime aerial view of a futuristic city that looks exactly like similar real-life shots. There are several major action set pieces, done spectacularly well—but unexpectedly, the movie works better as a story than as an action showcase.

It has its problems. Partly because Will Smith is in the role, detective hero Del Spooner looks and acts a lot like all the rules-breaking, risk-taking, wise-cracking heroes common—all too common—to cop movies of the last 20 years or so. Actually, Spooner is somewhat different, but it’s hard to see—Will Smith kind of gets in the way. However, Smith is very good in the role, finding shades and ideas within the character that bring Del to life. This may be Smith’s best performance so far.
The movie opens with Smith asleep, in mid-nightmare: he’s recalling a near-death experience (we later learn it was recent) in which he’s rescued from a submerged car by a diligent robot. But he hates robots; he’s notorious for it at the station house, and the butt of a lot of jokes. Because there are millions of robots, all functioning safely because their positronic brains are coded with the unbreakable Three Laws of Robotics:

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 the 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.

Many of Asimov’s short stories dealt with events in which a robot might have violated one of the laws; the stories were worked out carefully to show that the laws were not violated. Something like that is going on here, too.

Spooner is habitually suspicious of robots; we later learn this is connected with his recurring nightmare of being trapped underwater. On his way to work, he captures a robot running down a crowded street with a purse. And of course learns it was just taking the purse to its owner.

Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), the creator of the technology that has led to the proliferation of human-assisting robots, has just been found dead. He fell to his death in the very high atrium lobby of U.S. Robotics’ towering office building. A hologram of Lanning specifically summoned Del; we learn there was a connection between the two, but until much later in the film, not what the connection was. Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood), the head of U.S. Robotics, is certain the death was a suicide, and wants it cleared up quickly. The firm is about to release thousands of their latest model, the NS-5 Automated Domestic Assistant. Soon there will be one robot for every five people on Earth.

Del also meets Susan Calvin, a frosty robot psychiatrist who’s also convinced—as is everyone but Del—that it’s impossible for a robot to have killed Lanning. (Calvin and Lanning both originated in Asimov’s stories.) Unfortunately, the script veers off into “cute” dialogue between the two; the actors handle it well, but it’s too familiar.

In Lanning’s lab, high up in the tower, they find evidence that the scientist (seen in video footage) had been working on a secret project. Calvin tells him about V.I.K.I., a vast computer that assisted in the design of the robots, and which operates the entire U.S. Robots building. Suddenly a robot bursts from hiding, grabs Del’s gun and leaps out the window; he cracks the pavement when he hits, but is unharmed, and runs away.

Eventually, the robot is taken into custody; though it is one of the NS-5 models, it is unlike any other robot. It refers to Lanning as “father,” and talks about its dreams—and seems to have emotions. It calls itself Sonny. (Actor Alan Tudyk provided the movement source for Sonny, a technique that’s being increasingly widely used.) Much to his quiet surprise, Del finds himself drawn to the friendly, soft-spoken robot, and begins to think it—no, he—may not have killed Lanning. Which leaves the question of just who did.

When Del visits Lanning’s mansion—interestingly, it’s in an old style with lots of wood—a demolition robot scheduled to tear the place down in the morning is suddenly activated and begins smashing the building as Del hastens to get away. (Carrying Lanning’s lonely cat.) This is fast-paced and visually stunning. Later, there’s another big fight between Del and dozens of robots as they plummet through a downtown tunnel. (This looks rather too much like a similar scene in “The Matrix Reloaded.”) The robots leap from giant cargo trucks, and the story heads for showdown.

“I, Robot” is well-paced, moving along at a good clip until the three-quarter mark, where it bogs down somewhat. It’s also a little confusing; it took me a day or so to figure the relationship of the secret of the whole thing to the Three Laws. It also looks terrific, and somewhat like “Minority Report,” with its cityscapes featuring fast-moving cars and trucks on giant expressways and tunnels. But this city also has a slum area, with older buildings and seedy businesses—but also lots of robots.

The climax takes place at the very top of U.S. Robots’ atrium lobby; Proyas engages in showy camera movements, with the camera doing 360-pans over and under the web-like catwalks. It’s dazzling, exciting, and always extremely clear about who’s doing what to whom and where. He occasionally uses camera movements to reveal unexpected details, as in the first scene at the U.S. Robots building.

The cinematography is by Simon Duggan (who worked with Proyas on “Garage Days” in their native Australia), the visual effects were supervised by John Nelson, and the production designer was the busy Patrick Tatopoulos. Proyas also directed “The Crow” and “Dark City.”

The movie’s weaknesses and strengths seem to alternate. As mentioned before, sometimes the mystery elements are well handled, at other times they’re clumsy and trite. The dialogue varies as well; sometimes it’s pretty good (“You’re the dumbest smart person I ever met”), sometimes it’s obvious and familiar. Yes, Smith sometimes yells wisecracks in action scenes, but Proyas wisely soft-pedals this.

We’re given fragments of information about Del Spooner’s past; he’s gone through a divorce, his parents are dead, and he likes lots and lots of sugar in his coffee. (This comes up a couple of times as if it’s going to be important in the plot; it isn’t.) This isn’t Smith just repeating his Bad Boys or Men in Black characters; he’s really trying to take this cop in new directions, and he largely succeeds.

The idea that this is only 31 years in the future is preposterous; even if robot technology like this were invented tomorrow, there’s no way this many robots could be built by 2035. It’s also unlikely that Lake Michigan would dry up, though this does allow the arresting sight of a huge bridge tower—all that remains of a vast suspension bridge. This figures in Sonny the robot’s dreams. The special effects involving the robots are highly convincing.

One of the basic problems with tackling Asimov’s Three Laws in movie form is that there have been so many robots in movies and on TV that have gone berserk that it’s difficult to accept the infallibility of the Laws. Even the ads for “I, Robot” say “some laws were made to be broken.” But Asimov stuck to his guns, and by George, so does this movie. As nearly as I can figure, they are bent but not broken.

The story here is so interesting that a huge preview audience there for the action scenes clearly preferred the dialogue scenes, because they just wanted to know what the heck was going on. There was some applause at the end of the showing, not common at press previews.

Smith and Moynahan are both good, as is Adrian L. Ricard as Smith’s devoted, salty grandmother. James Cromwell is especially good; it’s rare to see a scientist depicted in such a convincing manner—he actually talks like one. But Bruce Greenwood, as the shifty executive, can’t make an impression with his role, and Chi McBride is much too familiar as Del’s boss.

No, “I, Robot” is not all we could hope for from a movie related, at least, to Asimov’s story; it’s basically a big summer action movie. But it’s mostly very smart both in its science fictional details and in the overall plot. It seems a bit strange to see an action movie in which the action scenes—all too often the only thing such movies have to offer—are secondary to what’s otherwise going on. The movie is compromised, but like the Three Laws, it’s not destroyed. It’s a summer action movie with something on its mind.

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