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I, Robot Review

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by Chris McEneany Mar 13, 2008 at 12:00 AM

    I, Robot Review
    Law I - A robot may not harm a human or, by inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

    Law II - A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law.

    Law III - A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.

    Taking Isaac Asimov's momentous, genre-moulding short story as a springboard, Alex (Dark City) Proyas fashions a sci-fi actioner that delivers riotous set-pieces, a neat - although contrived - character arc or two and some intriguing food for thought. Popular upon its theatrical run and initial DVD outing, I Robot arrives on Blu-ray with plenty of expectation and excitement. This is, after all, the type of material that cries out for a high-definition transfer to showcase its dazzling visuals and kinetic pizzazz - and the good news is that it definitely delivers.

    Will Smith - one of the easiest leading men to instantly like in any given film - is futuristic (but retro-fixated) Chicago cop Del Spooner, a pro-active, smart-mouthed, attitude dominated dude strutting about a city and a society that has gone a level or two beyond that which he is comfortable with. With his resentment of the humanoid robots that have become Man's everyday servants a slightly skewed racial allegory of bigotry and intolerance, Spooner seems committed to finding one of the metal-heads guilty of a crime - even it is just something as trivial as a purse-snatch. But, with the above laws hardwired into every robot's circuited-psyche, this seems highly unlikely to occur. Yet when the apparent suicide of the world's foremost droid-creator, Dr. Alfred Lanning (the always reliable James Cromwell), raises his investigative hackles, he can't help but suspect that a robot named Sonny (voiced by Firefly's Alan Tudyck) is behind it all. Corporate intrigue and Spooner's knack for sticking his nose where it doesn't belong bring him into contact with the slimy CEO (Down Below's Bruce Greenwood) of the vast company responsible for manufacturing the robots and his chief scientific aid, Dr. Susan Calvin (the defiantly wooden Bridget Moynihan). His investigation turns up leads that seem to foretell of something sinister and far-reaching in the works ... something that Lanning had stumbled upon ... and something that only Spooner would be able to comprehend. But, given that Spielberg's Minority Report had already accomplished the future mystery/detective yarn with superb depth and canny revelations about dark hearted technology, Proyas and screenwriter Akiva (I Am Legend) Goldsman opt for the more generic and visceral approach. This detective places his own arrogance and swaggering charisma way ahead of his badge and can't go anywhere without shooting the place up with some impressively powerful weaponry. Naturally, this brings him into conflict with his department in the time-honoured tradition of a thousand maverick cops before him, yet endears him to us because we love our heroes to be cavalier, rebellious and quick with a one-liner. We also like them to be haunted by the spectre of some prior tragedy, so Goldsman sprinkles some angst into Spooner's makeup as well.

    “One defected machine is not enough for you. You need them all to be bad. You don't care about Dr. Lanning's death. This is about the robots and for whatever reason you hate them so much.”

    Surprisingly comfortable in the sci-fi fold, with Men In Black I & II, Independence Day, Wild Wild West and I Am Legend to his credit, Will Smith makes a concerted effort to have us believe in his cynical copper. But it isn't such a hard thing for him to do, when all said and done. With the requisite back-story, told conveniently in sudden, murky flashbacks that reveal their secret slowly over the course of the film - just as would be the case with Smith's Robert Neville in I Am Legend, Spooner's reasons for his robotic-distrust are clear, if a little clichéd. A later twist will, of course, reveal an even more personal connection to those of a synthetic standing but, if anything, this just bolsters the hip comic-book zeal with which Proyas continually prods his movie. Smith's charm and comedic talents help him breeze through encounters and scenarios that might, otherwise, have been downright daft if played too seriously. He even manages to make his outsider status something to be proud of, elevating the ten-a-penny rogue cop routine with simple self-deprecation. The clumsy and basically unneeded addition of a smart-assed teen street-sidekick, played by rising star-in-the-making Shia (Transformers/Indiana Jones) La Bouf is a misstep, though, merely there to provide some meagre jeopardy when the 'bots and the bods go head to head and Spooner has to save the day. But, even if just a lightweight and disposable character, inter-changeable with any number of other heroes from the genre, Smith's Spooner still earns his swanky floor-length leather jacket and prominent face-place on the poster by sheer virtue of having to perform opposite his more robotic than the robots female co-star.

    For Bridget Moynihan is not so good, folks.

    For the most part packing the kind of expression that you would expect to see on a droid post-shutdown, she isn't even effective-enough eye-candy, obligatory (and rather bland) shower scene notwithstanding - even Smith gets more gratuitous flesh exposure! Her line delivery is fake and almost cue-carded to her vacant eyes across the set and her acting is mechanic at best. But, bizarrely enough, I don't mind her coldly blank presence. There is even some form of unconscious subtext involving how dehumanising it is to work with robots in the process of creating the semblance of emotion in them, though Proyas is not so bothered to chase up this notion once the heat is on for Spooner's mystery unravelling. Perhaps I'm just being overly charitable in thinking that her performance is a pseudo-deliberate in-joke interpretation of a boffin devolving into a jargon-spouting automaton, but the truth is more to do with the fact that Moynihan is a deadringer for my favourite barmaid, so that just has to go in her favour! However, there is a shot towards the end when she turns to Spooner in slightly slowed-down film and the wind through a wrecked window “artfully” toys with her hair that is so gratuitously clichéd it is purely risible.

    “Human beings have dreams. Even dogs have dreams, but not you, you are just a machine. An imitation of life. Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot turn a ... a canvas into a beautiful masterpiece?”

    “Can you?”

    When it comes to Sonny, the advanced prototype that Lanning has been working on, the film discovers its primary messager. As a conduit into the sci-fi whimsy of a world that sees such creations as robots as everyday objects, Sonny is a gloriously streamlined character of insight, innocence and stark aesthetic design beauty. And, even better is the fact that he is a manipulated victim, himself. There are no prizes for guessing the eventual outcome of his relationship with the bigoted Spooner, but threads of Goldsman's script still glimmer with the possibilities that Asimov and his fellow revered literary dreamers aspired to with their speculative fiction. His calm childlike incomprehension at the predicament he finds himself in - facing a charge of murder - and his strict adherence to the primary functions that Dr. Lanning installed within him provide the cerebral underpinnings of the tale. With his wonderfully gleaming smoked-glass visage, smooth mannerisms and almost angelic voice you can't help but sympathise. Yet when we see his lightning-quick reflexes and ultra-alarming speed, you can't deny the sense of apprehension that accompanies him, as well. Therefore, imagine how provocative the sight of an army of his kind can be. That Mona Lisa half-smile playing about their Casper-the-Ghost faces and those penetratingly blue gemstone eyes become the stuff of implacable nightmares when they are in “nasty” mode. Ranks of beguiling-faced automatons have served the genre well over the years. Doctor Who has memorably utilised the image a few times, even The Stepford Wives incorporated that unnerving smile and charade of humanity. But I, Robot does well with its daunting visions of masses of them. Sonny's hiding in amongst a thousand of the chrome-domes all stood to attention is rife with menace and the striding crowd-controllers once humanity has been deemed unsafe to be allowed out bring a definite air of outnumbering malevolence. But, for a really vicious look, check out the one with half its face burned-away as it advances on Spooner amid the wreckage in the tunnel. The design work of their faces is certainly versatile considering that seemingly set-in-stone expression.

    The excitement is undeniable and Proyas does the best he ever has with some extremely audacious set-pieces that were truly staggering when the film first came out, and still look amazing even now. A visual filmmaker of some repute, with plaudits going to the elaborate Dark City and the fabulously neo-gothic The Crow, but, until this movie, not an especially dynamic or adrenaline-fuelled one, Proyas, here, delivers both great build-up and pay-off to his episodic mayhem. Spooner's pell-mell flight from a house being demolished ahead of schedule sets the tone for the furious bedlam that will follow. His raucous tunnel-trauma sequence, when Spooner's vehicle is sandwiched between two huge robot transporters that disgorge their calmly malignant cargo upon him by the bucket-load, is over-the-top mayhem to order. Some of the CG may now look a little too soft and unconvincing when compared to much more recent product - shots of Spooner leaving behind flaming wrecks especially don't blend too well - but there is no denying the sheer cathartic bliss of seeing Smith's spinning-top killing-spree. Likewise, Proyas does go some way to detailing the actual human revolt against the robots on the streets. Love the clash of flesh against metal and it also brings back some nostalgic memories of reading the classic Brit sci-fi comic 2000AD when I was a nipper and the robot rebellion that took place in Judge Dredd's Mega-City One.

    Marco (3.10 To Yuma, Hellboy) Beltrami delivers the score for the film and even it may not be the most original or memorable of his work, it still contains a fine main theme and a couple of grand action cues. The final furious high-rise melee is scored with a marvellous combination of techno-orchestral thumping and a rollicking motif that accompanies Spooner's slow-mo, machine-gunning dives and pirouettes to perfection. Futuristic melancholy is also served up as we survey the gleaming cityscape, mingling wonder with a distinct undercurrent of distrust and apprehension. Beltrami's scoring has become smarter and more sophisticated since I, Robot, but this is still a resoundingly classy soundtrack that manages to avoid many of the sci-fi clichés that still crop up in the genre these days.

    “You must be the dumbest smart person in the world.”

    “And you must be the dumbest, dumb person in the world.”

    A heavy accusation often levelled against the movie is the amount of gratuitous product placement, namely the Audi, the Converse trainers and Spooner's JVC sound equipment. Now, whilst this is overt and can certainly become an issue to some people, it doesn't actually bother me one iota. My only grievance concerning it would be the sledge-hammering effect it has of reinforcing the main character's passion for the past. Just a single tracking shot of nick-knacks in his home, or the sight of the clobber in his wardrobe would have been enough to let us in on this particular trait. However, this is nowhere near as overt and clichéd as a similar trait exhibited by Sandra Bullock's dizzy 20th Century-obsessed cop in Marco Brambilla's Demolition Man, which really is. pathetic. But beyond this and the lack of emotion from Moynihan, the film is terrific entertainment. It asks questions about humanity and subservience, A.I. and the point at which a being qualifies as having a soul, but it does so in a juvenile manner that Asimov would have despised, his high-brow ponderings pretty much jettisoned in favour of flames and metallic fists. However, its theoretical and philosophical examination of the future is more concerned with quickening the pulse than tweaking the intellect. And, as far as I am concerned, there is nothing wrong with that.

    Nothing earth-shattering, then, but great fun nevertheless. A strong 7 out of 10, with only the likes of Moynihan and the formulaic pattern it can't resist falling into snipping another point off it.

    “What makes your robots so much goddamn better than human beings?”

    “Well, they're not irrational or potentially homicidal maniacs, for starters.”

    The Rundown


    7
    AVForumsSCORE
    OUT OF
    10