July 18, 2004

I, Robot

iRobot

iPoster I, Robot
Starring: Will Smith as Detective Exposition, Bridget Moynahan as Dr Exposition, Bruce Greenwood as Chief Exposition Officer, Adrian L. Ricard as Grandma Mostly Exposition, Chi McBride as Lt Exposition, Shia LaBeouf as Pointless Sidekick Exposition, James Cromwell as Zefram Cochrane, and Fiona Hogan as ENIAC. Oh, and Alan Tudyk as the human model for Sonny, your plastic pal who's fun to be with.
Directed by: Alex Proyas
Written by: Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman, "Suggested by Isaac Asimov's books"
MPAA says: Rated PG-13 for intense stylized action, and some brief partial nudity. This means Will Smith in a shower scene (and for those of you who would prefer Bridget Moynahan, a foggy glimpse of her in a shower, too).
Running time: 115 minutes
Release date: July 16, 2004
Seen at: National Amusements City Center 15 (see previous comments), still a Pepsi-products theatre. Ever since I heard there will be a sequel to 28 Days Later (28 Weeks Later—seriously), my Pepsi PTSD has returned.

Gimme!Three Simple Rules for Building A Robot
Shortly after I arrived in New York this month, I had to make a run down to a large Mac-store in lower Manhattan to buy a replacement laptop power cord (yes, Mac-only stores do exist, in spite of the insistence of the various computer shops I phoned that one can only order replacement parts directly from Apple). Sleek, colourful iPod Minis sat on display next to the robust most recent version of the glossy white iPod, right next to the cash register like impulse-buy candy bars, and I nearly succumbed to their allure. I've always been jazzed by sleek tech combined with sleek packaging. I own a slender white iBook (that can be dropped right on its apple and keep on ticking). My iBook greets me when I open its cover to wake it from sleep and carries on a brief conversation, with sufficient (though rudimentary) programming to respond in a variety of ways to my own remarks. I almost never power off the machine. The hard drive, that hard worker, has its own name, but the voice is called Marguerite, after the cunning lady explorer in the television series Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World. I've turned her off while I write this, so she doesn't get any ideas.

Don't gimmeIn junior high school and high school, then later when I worked for his publisher (not his editor, but a wide variety of books were readily available to those of us working elsewhere), I read Isaac Asimov's I, Robot series and subsequently dozens more of his novels, short stories, and essays until I realised I wasn't going to live long enough to make my way through his enormous output. I plan to reread the robot novels this summer. But I'm going to review I, Robot as a film, not an adaptation. As the credits remind the audience, the movie is only suggested by Isaac Asimov's work. The characters are familiar, and the fiercely smart and straight-backed Dr Susan Calvin feels like the Susan Calvin I recall from the books, even if she's in a different situation (remember Faramir?). Although Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics are at the core of the movie and its mystery and its philosophical musings, the movie is not so much Asimov as an artefact of our times. The Three Laws have become such an ingrained part of our culture that even some people who don't read science fiction take it for granted this is how our increasingly brainy computers and robots are (or should be) programmed. Only aliens program evil computers, and Terminators are just movie monsters. The Three Laws distill a "prime directive" for the new species we may already be creating. They are perfect. Or are they?

As the hero in the movie is challenged to consider: are we asking the right questions?

First Law of Robotics: A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
First Law of Movies: You may not hurt the cute furry animal.

The Unusual SuspectsThe place is Chicago, 2035, and robots distributed by mega-corporation USRobotics (in the movie all but once referred to as USR, which is much more twenty-first century, dontchathink?) have taken over many common jobs (dog walking, delivering mail, tending bar). The NS-4 model robots look like they marched right off the stylised covers of 1960s science fiction, with round, blank puppy eyes in their C3PO heads. NS-5s, the upgrade USR wants in every home, are iPods, with subtle facial expressions and cheekbones to die for. Unfortunately, that appears to be the literal case, as robot designer Dr Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell) suddenly drops a gabillion floors through the atrium window of his laboooratory to land in the middle of the USR headquarters lobby, his broken body cluttering up the feng shui. Detective Del "Spoon" Spooner (Will Smith, playing Will Smith, Angsty Version) is called in on the case. Dr Lanning was a surrogate father for him (he addresses Spooner tellingly in a pre-recorded message—watch for it). Spooner, however, is virulently distrustful of robots or any technology more complicated than a low-end CD player (could there have been some sort of... trauma in his past?). He and Lanning may share the theory that even a robot has the potential to develop self awareness, but Spooner believes robots can also become murderous. He becomes obsessed with proving Lanning was killed by, as one character puts it, his toaster. In his way are the rational arguments of robot-stiff USR head honcho Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood) and computer-smart robot shrink Dr Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan). Was it industrial accident? Corporate cover-up? Delusions of a Luddite detective with PTSD? The ghost of Bill Gates in the machine? Thus the movie is off to a lurching start, sometimes wowing the audience with glimpses of a future where robotmen mix with hu-men on city streets; other times talking the audience into a stupor.

In that regard, it is a bit in the spirit of the Asimov original—it pauses to explain and discuss complicated notions until it seems, particularly in the first half of the film, to have forgotten that it's a motion picture. It tosses in fast-paced action to raise the energy levels. Sometimes, the lecture works, providing interesting points to ponder. Sometimes, the movie just can't trust the audience to "get it."

Second Law of Robotics: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
Second Law of Movies: In a car chase, vehicles must explode even if not powered by gasoline (cf. Van Helsing).

After the movie, Mother (who accompanied me and, though not a science fiction fan at all, enjoyed it), wondered whether Will Smith had initiated the production. Why cast him, in particular, she asked. In fact, I wondered myself whether he had had some creative control, since the movie is such a respite from the usual White Guys Do Stuff (a nicely varied cast of extras, even though it does have the Typical Brow-Furrowed Black Police Boss, played by Chi McBride). Sadly, one does still notice the casting extremes of certain films and television shows (I will rant about White Guy Trek another time; or, I'll simply spare you). But I also considered this: Who are the Action Heroes of this generation, now that the previous generation are looking sedentary or becoming governors, and now that Jackie Chan is too precious a treasure to risk breaking again? Will Smith has far more acting range than Keanu Reeves, and is just as pretty, and will take off his shirt. And pants. Did I mention the shower scene? Gasps resounded through the theatre as the question was answered: Boxers or Briefs? Twice. But I digress.

Pretty much pointlessSmith's bescarred Spooner is as cool as he's anti-robot, long-lashed and leather-jacketed, filled with cop angst, still picking at the scabs of a divorce. He also loves his grandma and manages not to cross the creepy line with his relentless flirting with Susan Calvin. I would have enjoyed spending a little more time with Spooner, getting to know him and seeing more backstory about this world and how robots function in it day to day, rather than the script rushing Spooner into the murder investigation then pausing to speechify about how robots move through humans' daily lives. In fairness, I wouldn't be surprised if the movie and/or script were heavily edited down, judging by the mysteriously brief appearance of a kid sidekick called Farber (Shia LaBeouf), who could as easily have been replaced with a nameless extra. Moynahan's Calvin is played to perfection (the actress could get out and eat more, though). Again, it's been some time since I've read the books featuring this character, but she felt right. Not the ideal female heroine, but she doesn't have to be the ideal of powerful womanhood to be believable. Calvin's puzzlement at each anti-technology aspect of Spooner's life (one incident is reminiscent of Scotty talking into a Macintosh mouse) is done for laughs, but Moynahan smoothly gives us the world through Calvin's eyes, even when she has to fight the script to do it.

Fahrenheit Robot
Ah. The script.

Cheers to script writers Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman for giving us the big questions. A wagging finger and no-pie-for-you to Vintar and Goldsman for too many leaden one-liners attempting to be hip.

True, exposition abounds, but on occasion the dialogue and scenarios are cleverly ironic. Yes, gusts of sentimentality blow over the landscape at the treatment of the NS-4s, but the suggestion of cattle cars burns its point into the viewer's mind without a single word.

Police officers swathed in riot gear are hard to distinguish from robots themselves, and the NS-5s occasionally glow in ominous Cylon red. Moviegoers can't get enough of those evil mega-corporations either, can we? But overall, I, Robot is an optimistic view of our collective future. Yes, We The People (in the human-being sense of the word) can prevail through megalomania and dangerous crises; yes, we can live up to our ideals and make the world a little more wondrous every day.

There is what appears to be a convenient logic gap in the plot, but I'll want to watch the film a second time before accusing it of a bug; the moment spun past too quickly for me to assess. I do have to ask: How does a gun lie in the middle of a busy Chicago plaza with no one noticing? Ah well; just accept that pedestrians are more focussed in the future.

Third Law of Robotics: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Third Law of Movies: Keep the franchise alive. Make a sequel.

Spooner and Calvin share a moment between exposition and explosionsThe production design is not radically different from today's world; 2035 is portrayed through subtle changes in details, from a slight evolution in clothing to superfast computer-controlled traffic. This is not the drastically altered world of Bladerunner (urban malaise to the point of manic-depression) or Minority Report (spam! spam! spam! And that's just walking from your door to your car). After all, Spooner's world is only thirty years away. The most chilling change is the talon of the USR building arcing above Chicago's Sears Tower. Chicago is gorgeous in the 3D model, lit by warm washes of sun or illuminated by bright city lights and the glowing hearts of millions of robots on the prowl. A few of the action scenes are filmed in the fashionable jerky-cam overused in Gladiator, which I cannot abide, but which I suppose I must resign myself to until the next fashion wave hits cinematography.

Several animation houses executed the special effects, including Digital Domain (I've met some of their staff at conventions and have lusted after their jobs) and Weta Digital (Gollum; 'nuff said). Although at times the robots shamble awkwardly, fitting unconvincingly into their setting—particular from a distance—ninety percent of the time they are flawlessly integrated, as are the backdrops (the days of "it's only a matte painting" seem to be long gone). The actual sets ("Chicago street, under the El") betray their small size with a few continuity errors—or maybe, like Starbucks, there actually is a Hideki's Sushi Bar across the street from another Hideki's Sushi Bar.

The car chase is exciting, and when big robots stomp on things that go boom, I'm a kid watching Transformers and Voltron again. Mother loved the music so much she mentioned it several times during the credits (I may have to buy her the CD). One particular visual (it would be a spoiler to describe it) is so grandiosely perfectly in tune with the Asimov vision that it resonates long after the screen has faded to black, and on its own stirs prolonged consideration of the larger meanings underpinning this action flick. It would be the perfect book cover.

Cue sequel.

To See or Not to See: So I'm in the hair salon right before seeing this movie, and a young guy walks in brandishing a DVD case. The packaging was quite professional—a photo of Will Smith on the front cover, shots from the film on the back: a pirated version of I, Robot. Yeesh, what's the point? This is a big-screen movie. Sit through the exposition, enjoy the action, ponder the mystery, and philosophise. And have I mentioned the shower scenes?

Sitting through the credits so you don't have to: Nothing special to see, not even in the design.

Outside Food: I pressed the wrong button when selecting the movie time on the Ticket Dispensing Robot, so I had to wait on line to exchange the tickets. The theatre security guard, an earnest young man desperate for something to do, approached, saying, "Is that outside food in your bag?" With polished ease, I stood inertly (bunny, headlights) as he stepped up to the man behind me, who had a plastic bag full of water bottles for his kids, which the guard okayed (unlike the guard at a theatre down around 13th Street in Manhattan, who made a friend of mine pour out her water bottle into the gutter then refill it from the theatre's own free water fountain). I'm not saying this man's water bottles were really filled with rum or saké or anything, but I am suggesting that's an idea to try some day. Mother and I ate ridiculously overpriced sub-par concession counter pizza (there wasn't enough time to go to the theatre's bar & grill), but I did bring a roll of Mentos, so that I would be made both fresh and diabolically clever.

Adverts: I dunno, I wasn't paying a whit of attention. Lucky me, the movie itself begins on a product-placement spree, making sure we get closeups of JVC, Converse, and FedEx branding within the first minute, then going on to wave Ovaltine and Dos Equis at us.

Previews: Some interesting movies on the theme of "Hero."

Final Word: See the movie. Then read the book.

Movie stills by Ava Gerlitz © 20th Century Fox.

Posted by OutsideFood at July 18, 2004 01:00 PM

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