"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."
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
"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.