I, Robot
directed by Alex Proyas
(20th Century Fox, 2004)

In what may be a classic case of the benefit of going into a movie with lowered (or no) expectations and then being pleasantly surprised, I am happy to say that I was thoroughly entertained by I, Robot, more so than at most of the science fiction/action/adventure blockbusters released in the last several years.

Will Smith excels in the skeptical cop role, even in spite of his apparent need to show off his huge muscles at any given opportunity. Smith's character quickly establishes his anti-robot bias and then is given the task of investigating the apparent suicide (or was it murder by robot?) of James Cromwell's scientist, who not only was the father of robotic science but personally created the more advanced line of robots who go haywire as the film unspools. The plot (which is "inspired by" Isaac Asimov's classic collection of short stories) is well conceived and provides just enough philosophical man vs. machine mumbo-jumbo to make the movie interesting to those who might want to use their head for something more than a hatrack.

From the advance ad spots and trailers, I feared the worst -- that Asimov's work would be totally subverted to the cause of throwing chase and battle scenes up on the screen. And while there is certainly no shortage of such scenes, the film redeems itself by not making these scenes the primary purpose of the story. The core of the plot is the transformation of robots from strictly programmed computer-driven appliances to sentient beings capable of altering their programming and rebelling against mankind. This issue is similarly dealt with as the basis for the Terminator and Matrix movies. Fans of the genre could spend the entire movie pointing out the influences and reference points; however, instead of simply regurgitating material that's been done before, director Alex Proyas has taken all these elements and synthesized something new and interesting.

If you're looking for strict adherance to Asimov's books or cutting-edge science fiction, look elsewhere; after all this is a Will Smith summer blockbuster. However given the obvious profit pressures imposed by big-budget Hollywood, Proyas has fashioned a work of significantly higher quality than what is usually foisted on the public at the multiplexes this time of year.

As the prime suspect robot Sonny, Alan Tudyk offer's the film's next best acting performance after Smith. The art design is well done throughout, especially the conception of the robots. Proyas's portrayal of the near future owes more to Ridley Scott's Blade Runner than to the atmospheric noir of his own Dark City. I should also mention that the music score by Marco Beltrami is really enjoyable, so much so that I wouldn't mind hearing it again on the soundtrack CD.

If I were to nitpick, my first beef would be the ridiculous amount of product placement, including what amounts to an on-screen in-movie commercial for Converse sneakers within the first five minutes. My only other complaint would be the relative ease with which Smith avoids being killed when the robots attack him during the high-speed chase in the underground expressway; one's ability to suspend disbelief is pushed to the limit in these scenes. Otherwise, this is a fine summer entertainment; just as enjoyable for those who like their movies mindless as for those who like a little food for thought with their popcorn.

- Rambles
written by William Kates
published 4 September 2004

It's hard to go wrong with Will Smith, especially when he has a solid script and sizeable budget to make good use of his wry humor and his flashy, action-hero talents. I, Robot, loosely based on a series of stories by Isaac Asimov, is an exception to the rule.

You can't blame Asimov, whose stories served only as an inspiration for the movie's plot, not an actual foundation. And you can't blame Smith, who does a pretty good job considering the material he had to work with.

I blame director Alex Proyas and screenwriters Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman, who had a shot at making a great film and were instead satisfied with mediocrity.

The story, set in Chicago circa 2035, focuses on Detective Del Spooner, a typical on-the-edge cop who flouts authority, enjoys sweet potato pie, has a wise and kindly granny and a quirky fondness for old (late 20th century) music and classic (early 21st century) footwear, and stands as a lone voice against the assumed harmlessness of service robots. His prejudice, we learn, is based on experience years before when a robot, with time to save only one of two people in a life-threatening situation, calculated the odds and rescued Spooner rather than a young girl.

Now, the proliferation of a new line of robots to every household promises to make everyone's lives safer and easier. Spooner isn't convinced, however, particularly after the apparent suicide of a prominent scientist, robotics pioner Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), points to uncharacteristically violent behavior from a new robot prototype (played, a la Gollum, by Alan Tudyk). Bland robotics psychologist Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) maintains that such behavior is impossible, while secretive company head Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood) doesn't want the bad publicity.

But soon, disturbing questions arise: Can robots think or feel independently of the three laws hardwired into their circuitry? Can electronic brains evolve? Can robots dream -- or, more to the point, can they scheme?

It's a solid premise for a film, and I, Robot had the budget needed to make a blockbuster science-fiction drama. Unfortunately, filmmakers were satisfied to punctuate tedious segments of dialogue with flashy special effects, chase scenes, explosions and robotic brawls.

The unpardonable sin here is, star power and big budget aside, I, Robot is dull. Worse yet, it's ordinary.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 13 August 2005

Buy it from Amazon.com.