Sci-fi Fast Food
Call it A.I.-lite. Or, perhaps more accurately, call it a hash of Philip K. Dick movies, a freshly microwaved mix of Blade Runner and Minority Report topped with a big dollop of cheese. For although I, Robot is, as the movie's credits frankly state, "suggested by Isaac Asimov's book," it clearly wants to model itself after the filmed tales of the other science fiction author, whose works seem so blissfully wedded to Hollywood's story needs.
This is mostly evident in two aspects of the movie. First, its aesthetic is largely borrowed from Minority Report -- the look is predominantly bright, with lots of white. Product placement is rampant, although here it isn't accompanied by the smirking wink that suggests the insidious invasiveness of advertising in the future. Technology is represented mostly by metropolitan building and transportation advancements -- self-driving cars on long, streamlined highways pervade. That said, the film's production design should be credited with giving the year 2035 a reasonable, halfway feel that doesn't seem too technologically ahead for its own good. It looks the way it ought to -- with new devices grafted on to old foundations. Also, the robots, both old and new models, are a visual delight. Overall, however, the influence of Steven Spielberg's recent sci-fi films is beyond conspicuous.
Second, and more significantly, the movie is less about the distortion of Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics" (see reference note below), which his book explored, than it is about the possibility of blatantly disregarding them. The two major characters of the film are Detective Spooner (Will Smith) and "Sonny" (Alan Tudyk), one of a particularly advanced breed of robots with human-like faces. Spooner thinks robots are cold machines that can't be trusted, but Sonny exists as an antithesis to his theory -- a robot who has been uniquely endowed with the ability to feel "emotion." As a result, Sonny can disobey the Three Laws with his human-like decision making, which only spells danger to Spooner. The conflict that results comes mainly from the struggle to accept the idea that robot intelligence can understand the concepts of existence, free will, and feelings. Not exactly the same as Asimov, this is territory more explicitly covered in Blade Runner.
So although none of this feels new, the subject is always fun to explore, but for as many virtues as I, Robot possesses, it matches each one with a braindead Hollywood touch. The plot is a traditional cop story, complete with an angry chief who doesn't believe in our hero, ultimately taking away his badge. It's also a little too convenient -- Spooner is able to figure out the next piece of the puzzle too easily, too many times, through vague hints and his being reminded of something significant through the random utterings of other people. The movie tries to clumsily justify this by reiterating the point that most of the trail was set up by someone who was counting on Spooner's every move by anticipating his psychology, and it's funny to see the movie continually bring that up to explain its plot turns.
Perhaps most jarring are its out-of-place action sequences. They are technically proficient, but their disregard for logic screams to belong in another movie. There are parts where Matrix-like physics seem to be required in order for the heroes to do what they do. The action is there for its own sake, and happens whether or not the sequence is even reasonable -- for example, in one scene, Spooner's car, zooming at top speed, is trapped in a tunnel between two huge vehicles, one in front and one behind, both traveling horizontally to cover the width of the tunnel. To kill him, each vehicle deploys robots to attack his car, an unnecessary move when the front vehicle could just, you know, simply hit the brakes. Just as improbable is a big action sequence in the end which involves about a hundred robots attacking people on super-high catwalks. How could those people have lasted even one minute?
I don't mind ridiculous action sequences if the rest of the movie gives me a world in which those sequences might feel at home. Here, we clearly have a movie in which its examination of profound themes and its need for Hollywood conventionality are at odds with each other. Thus, the efforts feel halfhearted for both. To further undermine its own thinky story, I,Robot is filled with the annoying script habit of withholding information from the audience for the sake of unveiling it at points where the movie needs a boost in emotional investment. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the fate of one character who is given a very touching scene in the middle of the film, perhaps the movie's most effective one, only to have that effectiveness entirely negated by an event which occurs close to the climax. That event is a classic case of the movie's ill-advised preference of playing down to its audience, even as it lures in that most trustworthy of intelligent viewers -- those willing to embrace the perplexing human dilemmas in science fiction. Sadly, the big budget movie-making process has seriously diluted I, Robot's remaining nutritional value.
(Released by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and rated "PG-13" for intense stylized action violence and some brief partial nudity.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.
Isaac Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics"
Taken from Wikipedia:
- A robot may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given to it by the 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 the First or Second Law.