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Monday, August 02, 2004

A ISACK ASIMOF WRITING: I, Robot

As scenes of rioting robots are in the trailer, it is probably not giving away too much to say that there are elements of I, ROBOT that resemble another 20th Century Fox science-fiction film of long ago, namely CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Now, robots and apes are not all that similar, but both movies concern near-future societies in which a non-human slave force shows signs of rebelling against the ruling class. Nobody will be surprised that I, ROBOT is infinitely superior in terms of special effects and it’s got much better plotting – the screenplay by Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman, from Vintar’s story, which in turn derives the basic precepts of its universe from the work of Isaac Asimov, is in fact quite a good murder mystery. What APES has that I, ROBOT lacks is a passionately subversive spirit. This may seem like an irrelevant criticism, as good science-fiction (especially in the movies) need not be in the least subversive to work. However, I, ROBOT is just out there enough that we can feel something a lot more outrageous pulsing along under the more than proficient but less than daring surface.
In 2035, most menial work is done by polite, intelligent-seeming machines that resemble contemporary crash test dummies. Robot-hating Chicago homicide detective Del Spooner (Will Smith), newly back at work after a nightmare-inducing tragedy, is called in to investigate an apparent suicide at U.S. Robotics. The victim is the firm’s chief scientist, Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), who had met Spooner in the past and has for some reason left a holographic message for the detective. Spooner suspects murder – in fact, he believes Lanning was killed by a robot. This would seem to be impossible, as the first and most important of the Three Laws of Robotics states that a robot cannot harm a human, or through inaction allow a human to come to harm. However, a prototype robot called Sonny (voiced by Alan Tudyk) appears to be able to violate the Laws of Robotics and also (much to Spooner’s consternation and dismay) seems capable of independent thought and even emotion. But why would this robot kill the creator he claims to love? And what is U.S. Robotics chief Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood) trying to hide?
The puzzle aspect of I, ROBOT is its most compelling feature. The structure is strong and we genuinely do not guess exactly what is going on right away, although the clues are laid out for us fairly. Another bonus is Smith’s performance, which is intelligent and charismatic enough to carry us along even over the rough patches. Smith’s demeanor is noticeably darker here than usual – he’s not a cold fish and he’s definitely got a sense of humor, but the rage under the surface is a lot closer to volcanic than playful this time out. As the voice and basis for the expressive if very subtly detailed face and form of Sonny, Tudyk is thoughtful and appealing, making the self-aware robot the most likable character in the film
Here is where the movie runs into one of its problems. Several key supporting performers have apparently been directed to be cold and unemotional – the energy level goes way down during their scenes, some of which entail massive exposition that could have used any and all available torque. Also, while this may be a controversial view, the gleaming, basic look of the robots is visually intriguing at first, but comes to look uninflected later – the CGI when the robots are not interacting with live performers is dimensional yet feels more digital than visceral.
Director Alex Proyas stages some great action sequences and he and the writers show signs of having a message they would like to convey (there are a couple of plot points that are analogous to contemporary political issues). They also want to put across some thought-provoking moral ambiguity, which is usually welcome in movies, especially in this genre. However, they tend to pull their punches a bit, so that the ending feels both diffuse and defused. They want us to root for both humanity in general (even when we see humans bullying the subservient robots) and for Sonny’s right to exist in specific terms (although it is plain that most if not all of his brethren really are high-functioning automatons). In terms of statement, they have their cake and eat it, too – it just tastes a bit bland that way.

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