I, Robot

I, RobotSynopsis: Superstar Will Smith rages against the machines in this mind blowing, sci-fi action thriller! In the year 2035, technology and robots are a trusted part of everyday life. But that trust is broken when a scientist is found dead and a skeptical detective (Will Smith) believes that a robot is responsible.


I, Robot  7.75

eyelights: the core concept. the world it portrays. the ride. its messages.
eyesores: the CGI. the simplistic logic. the contrived action sequences. Will Smith’s sulking.

“The Three Laws will lead to only one logical outcome.”

Law I: A robot may not harm a human or, by inaction, allow a human being to come to harm

Law II: A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law

Law III: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law

‘I, Robot’ is a science fiction thriller that takes its title from and is loosely based on Isaac Asimov’s oeuvre. Set in 2035, and rooted in Asimov’s concept of the “Three Laws of Robotics”, it follows a Chicago police officer trying to solve the death of a notable roboticist on the eve of the world’s largest deployment of personal robot assistants.

The film, which was directed by Alex Proyas (of ‘The Crow‘ and ‘Dark City’ fame), is notable for its stylish vision of the future, exciting high-octane action pieces, and its sociopolitical commentary and messages. It was a worldwide smash upon its release in 2004, reconfirming the box office drawing power of its then-unbeatable star, Will Smith.

Even though it has its fair share of problems, I count myself amongst the fans of ‘I, Robot’; as far as special effects-laden action pieces go, one could do far worse. In fact, I so enjoyed watching it the first time around that I soon upgraded my DVD to blu-ray (after hearing how good it looked and sounded in the format). ‘I, Robot’ is a fun ride.

However, it also suffers from frequent lapses in logic, weak dialogues (particularly in the one-liners department) and a brooding, difficult main character who is a chore to like. Add to it some embarrassingly blatant product placement (JVC, Converse, Federal Express) and some unsightly CGI effects, and it doesn’t fully hold up under close scrutiny.

Will Smith makes an impression. Shedding his Fresh Prince image for good with ‘Independence Day’ and ‘Men In Black’, Smith decided to become an action hero. To prove it, he buffed himself up for ‘Ali’ in 2001 and never looked back. Stroking his ego, we get to watch him pose/model in the shower. Hurray.

But his character is otherwise defined as a moody, prejudiced @$$hole. To make matters worse, Smith’s method for establishing Spooner’s angst is to sulk a lot (“Poor Mr. Pouty-Face!”). And he’s so troubled that he wakes up to nightmares every morning – clutching his gun (one hopes he has the safety on!).

He’s also unusually inarticulate for a detective: he could easily defend his position and convince everyone that he’s right, but he doesn’t (ex: After being attacked, he could show his arm and the robots’ hand prints on his car, …etc. Surely that wouldn’t be considered normal or just a product of his prejudice).

It’s bad enough that he has underdeveloped communication skills, but we are also subjected to particularly lame, unclever one-liners. Gone are the days of good wink and ironic jab. But maybe this is intentional? Could Spooner be meant to want to be funny but failing miserably at it? That’s my only logical excuse for it…

Logic gaps

  • Spooner is called in to the crime scene by the suicide victim’s hologram disc.  But the hologram device he was holding survived the fall. Sure. Not only that: it was only a couple of meters away, even though it surely would have bounced way out upon impact.
  • The suicide wasn’t particularly messy given the height. A nice, clean, sanitized PG-rated 40-story (or whatever) drop. Fun for the whole family!
  • No one questions the fact that the human victim jumped through safety glass, even after Spooner points it out by trying to smash it himself.
  • Spooner picks out the one robot out of the thousand similar-looking models in a stupid as !@#$ fashion. As if the robot would react the way that it did. Facile.
  • Spooner goes to victim’s house, and promptly gets attacked by a demolition ‘bot. Um… why is the house scheduled for demolition anyway? And why so soon after his death?
  • As Spooner tries to escape the carnage caused by the demolition ‘bot, he shoots off the front door lock while still running away from the robot. And just makes it. Pfft. Lucky for him shooting didn’t just destroy the lock in a locked position.
  • Spooner goes through a huge underground highway tunnel… with no vehicles in it except his own. It’s convenient, because that way he can be attacked without causing any plot issues. And making it easier on the SFX team.
  • Um… why didn’t Spooner contact the police (or anyone else, really) for help when he got mobbed by the robots? Seriously, there were dozens of them…
  • How can there only be one robot left to attack Spooner in the end? There were two transports full of them, and only one made it to the end? Really?
  • Despite the damage, there was no trace of the attack on Spooner? Surely there would be something left behind or the clean-up droids would hold clues.
  • Spooner was allowed to keep the hologram disc – not just right at the onset, which already doesn’t make sense, but even after being suspended! Um… that’s evidence!
  • Spooner and Dr. Calvin climb 2880 steps… unwinded. And ready to fight.
  • V.I.K.I. doesn’t have any security whatsoever in case of intrusion.
  • When V.I.K.I. explodes, the city’s power returns and the robots are all okay now. Pffft.

Of course, for all the not-so-good stuff, there’s some excellent stuff in the picture that offsets things. The action sequences, as moronic as they are, are exciting; Alex Proyas has an eye for it. There’s also the matter of the technology, which is both cool and (relatively) credible at once. But, finally, there are the picture’s themes, which are well worth exploring.

One example of cool technology is the car park that Spooner leaves his car in. I’m not sure that’s more efficient or that it saves space, but it’s neat to see the cars stacked on an automated rack like that. Unfortunately, like most of the picture’s CGI effects and animation, it looks pretty unconvincing.

I love that Sonny is full of uncertainties, anger, self-doubt. He/it has a very wide emotional response, which I found interesting. I don’t really understand why one would want to program a robot to have emotions, as this defeats their usual efficiency, but it was a cool touch.

The USR transport vehicles that delivered the new NS5 robots are vaguely similar to the ones in ‘The Phantom Menace’. Essentially, they’re practical but not especially original. I think that they should have tried harder to distance themselves from such a high-profile film, released only a few years before.

From the moment that Spooner chases a robot who is running with a purse, assuming it’s a crime, we are presented with the theme of prejudice. Science fiction is always a great medium to discuss social mores, and prejudice of robots echoes our prejudices with respect to any new group in our society.

But ‘I, Robot’ doesn’t stop there: it also discusses personal freedom, tolerance/acceptance of others, and serves as a cautionary tale as well. Granted, it’s a bit heavy-handed in its approach, but better to discuss it broadly in popular fare than not at all; it might get people thinking who wouldn’t normally.

Where the film would have been much improved would have been from the police procedural side of things, which is weak. Having said this, it’s hardly surprising given that the original script, ‘Hardwired’, was designed more like a play and was then refashioned into a big budgeter by the filmmakers.

A damned shame.

But, honestly, for all my griping, I still enjoyed ‘I, Robot’ this third time out – albeit less so. Sure, it’s imperfect, but it’s a fun ride if one is into this whole sci-fi action thing. And it would make for a terrific companion piece to ‘The Matrix‘, or maybe even ‘The Terminator’.

There’s nothing like a high octane tale of “man vs machine” to pepper an evening.

Date of viewing: March 1, 2015


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