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I, Robot
Reviewed by Kevin Pezzano, © 2004

Format: Movie
By:   20th Century Fox
Genre:   Sci-Fi/Action
Released:   July 16, 2004
Review Date:   July 18, 2004
Audience Rating:   PG-13
RevSF Rating:   7/10 (What Is This?)

"Relax, I'm a police officer."
"You're an ASSHOLE."
--Will Smith's character gets off to a bad start with the people he's trying to protect from rogue robots.

The main problem with "I, Robot" is that it tries to walk that narrow line between Hollywood action blockbuster and thinking man's sci-fi, and it keeps stumbling and falling off.

The core idea and basic plot are brilliant, exploring Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics and taking them to a logical conclusion that even the inestimable Dr. Asimov only skirted around in his original short stories. But those intriguing concepts are sadly throttled almost insensate by a script that is straight-up Hollywood mindless action movie.

Let's start with what this movie does right. The previews for "I, Robot" seem to show an army of robots being gunned down by planet-rescuing hero Will Smith. This movie does indeed have an army of robots being gunned down by planet-rescuing hero Will Smith, but contrary to what you might think, they aren't out to destroy the world or act out "The Animatrix's" "Second Renaissance." There are no Bender-esque cries of "kill all humans" here. And there's only a single purposeful violation of the First Law ("A robot may not harm a human, or by inaction allow a human to come to harm") in the entire film.

The First Law

"Whatchoo talkin' about, Kevin?" I can hear you gripe. "How can an army of rampaging robots NOT be a violation of the First Law?" See, that's the beauty of the underlying story of "I, Robot." There is an army of robots, true... but they aren't on a mad rampage. What the robots are doing is utterly logical and consistent with the Three Laws.

As explained in a flashback to why Will Smith's character of Detective Del Spooner has such animosity towards robots, even something as seemingly restrictive as the First Law requires some interpretation. What happens, for instance, when two humans are in danger, but a robot can only save one of them? Which does it choose, and why? Or worse, what if acting to save a single human results in the deaths of many more humans? What does the First Law say a robot should do in that situation? These questions are not only valid in the context of Asimov's creation, they're interesting as well, since he left most of the ramifications of these ethical dilemmas unexplored in his original short story collection (only the stories "Evidence" and "The Evitable Conflict" even mention this possibility, and even they only bounce it around for a couple of paragraphs before abandoning the idea entirely). These very questions are at the heart of "I, Robot," and motivate both plot and robot army.

The other thing "I, Robot" does right is in that aforementioned flashback scene itself. Will Smith's character is yet another in a long line of cops haunted by tragedy, waking up in a cold sweat after reliving that terrible event in nightmares time after time. For a nice change, though, the tragedy that Del Spooner experienced wasn't the death of his wife, or his child, or even his partner. It was a total stranger, a young girl named Sarah. And even better, she wasn't killed by the villain or his goons or some generic criminal ("I, Robot" doesn't have a villain to speak of), but a simple car accident. And yet, that accident and its aftermath, with a passerby robot rescuing Spooner after his and Sarah's cars were plunged into a river, are at the very root of Spooner's hatred of robots, and they also tie in directly to the First Law-driven motivations of the robots he ends up facing at the climax of the film.

Wise-Ass™ Will Smith

And Smith is very effective as Spooner. Yes, he rattles off his trademark wiseass lines and exudes his trademark smartass attitude, but he is genuinely funny and charismatic. Let's face it, Will Smith is fun to watch no matter HOW bad the movie around him gets. He's also good during the quieter moments in "I, Robot," believably portraying Spooner's weary soul and the torment he feels about what happened to the young girl. Yes those moments are rare, and mostly overwhelmed by the explosions and witticisms, but they are there. He even does a good job with the uncomfortable bigotry angle, but more about that later.

Almost as good are the emotional moments of the main robot, Sonny. He managed to generate some true empathy, helped by his mild, HAL-esque voice (provided by "Firefly's" Alan Tudyk) and guileless but very emotional face. It's just too bad that Sonny was so... generic. He may have been unique in the movie, but there was precious little about him that was interesting or original when compared to the rest of the many Sci-Fi Robots That Develop Feelings.

The rest of the characters in the film are likewise flat and, dare I say it, robotic. This film does attempt to provide at least a slight twist to the cliches, like when they had the harassed police lieutenant who doesn't believe Spooner's claims that First Lawed robots are capable of murder be sympathetic to Spooner's plight, making it clear that his hampering of the investigation is purely because his job requires him to do so and not because he thinks Spooner is a Rogue Cop on the Edge (they still go and have beers together). The filmmakers still managed to throw in the classic "call from the mayor's office after Rogue Cop on the Edge causes havoc while bringing in a suspect" bit, though. Even Susan Calvin seems to be little more than window dressing, and not at all the coolly brilliant robot psychologist of the stories. At least James Cromwell's turn as robot inventor Dr. Alfred Lanning is fun, although mainly for the geek joy of seeing him in yet another sci-fi film. In the words of a friend of mine, "He invented warp drive AND robots? What a COOL guy."

F/X

An even bigger drawback than the barely-developed characters, though, are the action sequences. These almost totally derail what could have been a really smart movie about logic versus emotions and man versus machine. The first big action sequence in the film, where Spooner chases down Sonny who is trying to escape from a crime scene, is actually really good. It's tense, it's imaginative, and it lets us see the depth of Spooner's feelings about robots. After that, though, things rapidly go downhill.

During Spooner's investigation, he is nearly killed twice by rogue robots. And while the action sequences that result from these attempts to silence Spooner before he uncovers the truth are technically brilliant and even enjoyably tense, they're almost totally nonsensical. Even within the bigger context of the robots' motivations, there's no particular reason for the way they carry out these assassination attempts. And as if my suspension of disbelief wasn't stretched enough, the robots apparently clean up so well after each attempt that Spooner comes off to other humans as ever more paranoid and seemingly prejudiced. Considering the sheer scale of the second of those attempts, the whole idea is laughably lame and illogical, and almost kills the rest of the movie.

Even aside from those big Hollywood blockbuster setpieces, "I, Robot" misses too many of the opportunities inherent in the story and script. The bigotry angle, for instance, was used to great effect in Mahiro Maeda's "Animatrix" contribution "The Second Renaissance," but aside from a few blatantly obvious parallel moments the interesting notion of the African-American Spooner exhibiting what are essentially racist attitudes towards the robots is never explored. Likewise, the motivations behind the robot army at the climax of the film are almost drowned out by all the flashy special effects explosions and bullet-soaked action.

"I, Robot" was actually a lot better than I was expecting it to be, and while it's not really an Asimov adaptation, it plays with the themes of Asimov's books in a respectful, original, and logical way. It just missed out on so many chances to be so much BETTER. It's an undeniably cool movie, and certainly the smartest sci-fi actioner since "Minority Report." But it's too loud, too wiseacre, and too dumb in too many places to be really great. And that wasted potential, not the changes made to Asimov's original, is what really hurts this film.

Anime and Comics Editor Kevin Pezzano went out and bought a copy of Asimov’s book just so he could pretend he knew what he was talking about when reviewing this film.

 
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