I, Robot

I had mixed reactions upon hearing that there was to be a film based upon Isaac Asimov’s collection of short stories. On the one hand, I love the original stories, and Alex Proyas was directing, but on the other hand, the film was to star Will Smith, which meant that there was no way that this film would be any good at all.

It’s not that I particularly dislike Will Smith, it’s simply that the original short stories were not action flicks, they were thoughtful examinations of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, and the various ways in which they could be subverted. Will Smith has a tendency to star in a particular type of film (the overblown action genre), and play a part in a particular way (the wise-cracking, doesn’t-take-no-shit, does-things-his-own-way smirking action hero). Will Smith is not a subtle, thoughtful actor, and he does not star in subtle, thoughtful films.

Further cause for concern came in the opening 10 or 20 minutes, when we are treated to THE MOST PAINFUL PRODUCT PLACEMENT YOU WILL EVER SEE. Close ups on JVC CD players, a FedEx robot, and in the most blatant moment, a pair of Converse shoes (“Vintage 2004,” quips Will Smith as person after person admires them, “WHICH MEANS YOU CAN BUY THEM IN SHOPS NOW, KIDS!”). None of this is even remotely related to the plot, and it’s jarring and ham-fisted. Not a good start.

As I suspected, Will Smith plays the role of Detective Del Spooner as, well, Will Smith. Other casting is generally adequate, with the only one really standing out being Alan Tudyk, who plays the role of Sonny, a robot accused of the murder of his creator. Tudyk plays the part with a gentle, sympathetic air, but is slightly underused. James Cromwell cameos as the deceased Dr. Alfred Lanning, but is slightly overused as we see him frequently in recorded videos and the like. Susan Calvin, quite a central figure from the stories, is played by Bridget Moynahan as a slightly niavé figure who doesn’t see what’s happening until very late in the day. Generally, the robots are more personable than the people.

Cop clichés and the Chicago of the future

Alex Proyas, formerly of Dark City and The Crow, creates a futuristic Chicago that is stunning, and the robotic special effects are similarly excellent, ranging from the subtly of Sonny’s iMac-like translucent skin, to the bullet-time ninja antics of robot vs. robot. This is a beautiful film, and the action, of which there is plenty, is impressive and fun to watch, with notable scenes including a swarm of robots that attack Spooner’s car and the head-on collision between a human mob and robot army.

Despite Proyas’ best efforts, though, the film is hampered by the dubious screenwriting skills of Akiva Goldsman, the man behind the excerable Batman & Robin. Every cop film cliché is here – the detective with the tragic past, a story nobody believes, a big black Chief of Police who takes away his badge, the unguarded service entrance…it’s a testament to both Proyas’ skill as director and Asimov’s skill as a storyteller that helps the film recover from the witless Hollywood treatment.

More Equilibrium than Independence Day

I, Robot could so easily have been just another idiotic summer blockbuster, another Will Smith vehicle. However, there’s enough of Asimov’s original ideas in here to make for an interesting film. We have a robot who dreams, who possibly also murders, who appears to feel and have free will. Also, although it isn’t strictly mentioned, we have the "Zeroth Law of Robotics", which is the logical conclusion of the three original laws – that the protection of humanity itself overrides the protection of individual humans.

This film could have been a Gattaca, or a Blade Runner, if only it had concentrated on Sonny some more instead of action, but on several occasions it flirts away from the action and toward the cerebral, such as the passing mention of supposedly emotionless robots gathering together when in storage, rather than standing apart. I was left wanting more of this.

In the end, though, it is more Equilibrium than Independence Day – a pleasing amount of dumb action with just enough brain to encourage you to actually discuss the film afterwards, instead of just listing your favourite exploding moments. And, if it encourages people to go on to read the original stories, so much the better.