I, Robot (2004)
Will Smith (Del Spooner), Bridget Moynahan (Susan Calvin), Alan Tudyk (Sonny), James Cromwell (Dr. Alfred Lanning), Bruce Greenwood (Lawrence Robertson), Chi McBride (Lt. John Bergin), Fiona Hogan (V.I.K.I.)
Machine Uprising/Ecological Disaster (?)
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.”– The 3 Laws of Robotics.
Will Smonth rolls on with the 2004 film I, Robot. Like I Am Legend, I, Robot is ostensibly based on a book which it has a very tenuous connection to. Isaac Asimov’s book I, Robot is really just a compilation of short stories tied together with a loose narrative framework and a shared world. The movie I, Robot plays more like a mash-up of Blade Runner, Demolition Man, and the 1984 Tom Selleck SciFi/Action turd Runaway with Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics as a narrative device. I, Robot is not a good adaptation of its source material, nor does it seem to be trying to be one. I, Robot is Isaac Asimov fan-fiction and as long as you can look at it through that lens it’s pretty good.
Smith plays Del Spooner, a filthy robot-hating hipster cop living in the far off future of Chicago. The world is very advanced but all his stuff is vintage 2004 from his sound-system to his stupid Converse sneakers, it even extends to his flippant over-sarcastic persona. Spoon is the worst. He was in a car accident years ago where a semi-truck pushed his car and another into a river. As everyone sank to the bottom a robot happened by and saved his life, ignoring his pleas to save the 12-year-old girl trapped in the other car instead. As such, Spoon has a complete distrust of robots and the 3 laws. He also has a super-strong robot arm, but that won’t be revealed until it will have the most dramatic impact. Basically, Spoon is the grim and gritty badass with a tragic backstory and also that character’s comedy relief sidekick.
Spoon is summoned to a crime scene where the inventor of modern robots (James Cromwell) has committed suicide and left a trail of clues leading to a conspiracy involving robots. Spoon enlists the help of one of the robotics company’s head experts (Bridget Moynahan) and a robot specially made to be able to ignore the three laws, Sonny (Alan Tudyk).
I, Robot gets a lot of hate from literature and Sci-Fi nerds alike, and I get it. Taking the writing of Isaac Asimov, one of the driest science fiction writers in the history of the genre, and adapting his movie into an action thriller where 3 out of 4 lines from the hero’s mouth are one-liners and elaborate CG-heavy action set-pieces are the name of the game is really a slap in the face to what I, Robot (the book) is.
But once you let go of the Asimov connection as anything more than a way to not get sued for using his 3 laws, then you’ll see that I, Robot is a perfectly competent film with some actually intelligent themes behind the gratuitous explosions. This is the last Alex Proyas movie where that name means anything as well as an ominous nod to where his career would be heading.
The best character in the movie is Sonny, played by Firefly’s Alan Tudyk. As a fully CG creation, Tudyk manages to pull off an intensely powerful performance and if this movie has any true star it’s him. As for the film’s literal star… listen, I like Will Smith. In spite of a lot of easy jokes about his former rap career, his goofy TV show, the rap videos he did for his early movies, the buffoonish qualities he brings to 98% of his roles, or the fact that he’s a famous Hollywood kook with a kooky wife and kooky space-cadet kids, he’s a good actor with a wide range who can sell drama but also be really charming and funny. I like Will’s performance in this movie, I even like Spoon. The problem is that the character maybe belongs in a different movie. Spoon brightens the place up and later in the movie when things get really dark that’s a real boon, but for the first hour (the film is nearly two hours long) he’s just comes off as a complete ass and only some of that is intentionally done by the script.
I, Robot does what any Asimov-alike story does, and probes at the 3 laws for flaws. Since this is essentially a thinking man’s Michael Bay film it finds the flaws pretty easily. And unfortunately, the plot is extremely predictable from how things go wrong to who is actually behind it. Based on this movie’s first hour, it’s watchable at best but the second near-hour is great. Things take a much darker turn than expected and though the dumb action set-pieces are coming fast and furious (pun definitely intended) they work. There’s a sort-of car chase at the mid-point that is just a great action beat and easily my favorite part of the film.
The CG is inconsistent. At times it looks great: most of the action scenes, while obviously greenscreen, are fluid and things have weight and depth but a lot of the close-ups or simple motion shots look horrifically fake. The robots all look pretty good, their faces have got some cheap uncanny-valley effect going on but I’m fairly certain that’s intentional. The robots have been called generic looking but I think that ends up helping to make them seem more emotionless and creepy when the film requires. I will admit that the red light effect when the robots turn “evil” is stupid.
My one issue, narratively, is the character dynamic. Bridget Moynahan’s character is completely redundant, she hears Spoon’s story of why he doesn’t trust robots, gets weirded out by his retro apartment, asks about his robot arm, and uses her insider knowledge to help stop the robot uprising. The thing is Sonny could done all those things, and seeing as how Spoon’s big thing is a mistrust of robots, Sonny filling those spots would have had more dramatic impact.
I appreciate that Moynahan plays a female lead who seemingly has a completely platonic relationship with our male lead (though the movie only gets a half point for that since I’m sure a big part of the reason that is is because she’s a white woman, he’s a black man, and movie studios are notoriously nervous about using that pairing in earnest) but this would’ve worked out better as a buddy-cop drama between a robophobic cop and a sentient robot. Apparently the makers of the canceled Karl Urban show Almost Human, (A.K.A. The Adventures of Grumpy Cop and Black-Guy Robot) thought so too.
Will’s good, Tudyk’s great, the action is excellent even when it gets a bit silly. The movie’s well-paced, the deeper meaning is solid, and the story works well. This is a quality movie worth watching even if its pedigree is well below that of its namesake. It’s the last good Proyas film! I get the hate for I, Robot but it doesn’t really deserve it. If it had a different name and no Asimov connection I think it would at least be a beloved cult actioner along the lines of Equilibrium and Reign of Fire. Very few movies that get this much hate are this enjoyable to watch.
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