Ah, the merits of low expectations! And what I anticipated with I, Robot could not possibly have been any less.
As I walked into the screening, I was asked if I was looking forward to the film. Unfortunately, the dictates of good taste prevent me from repeating my answer here, though I can say it involved a suggestion that the film would almost certainly engage in a highly personal activity with a certain barnyard animal. After all, I’d seen the trailer, which suggested yet another mindless CGI-created action-athon with occasional time-out for snappy one-liners from its star. It looked for all the world like a rehash of the cosmically godawful Men in Black II. That is, without Tommy Lee Jones — thus leaving us only with Will Smith, who hasn’t impressed me since Six Degrees of Separation.
Then there was the old, old dodge of capitalizing on a marketable author’s name — the claims that this film was “suggested by the book by Isaac Asimov.” Great Mother of All Marketing Ploys! Universal pulled that one back in 1934 with The Black Cat, which was “suggested by Edgar Allan Poe’s immortal classic.” While I freely admit that the 1934 Black Cat is in my personal pantheon of top-10 movies ever made, it has absolutely nothing to do with Mr. Poe’s “immortal classic.”
So with this to work from, the atmosphere of the screening was definitely one that mixed grave misgivings with gloomy foreboding (and I’m again being polite). Well, I was wrong — very wrong! No, I, Robot is not Asimov’s story (or stories), though it is drawn from the sci-fi great’s work. The three laws of robotics — which ensure that a robot cannot harm a human being — are authentic to Asimov. Moreover, the film’s basic plot is rooted in his writing as well. That, of course, is a minor consideration — effecting only die-hard sci-fi fans — since the movie’s quality relies very little on this core faithfulness to its sources.
The real surprise here is that I, Robot is that rare entry among summer blockbusters — a film with something on its mind. That’s not to say that it doesn’t fulfill the requirements of the season: It’s loud, it’s often funny, it’s filled with nicely orchestrated action sequences. Yet there’s more to it than that — some of which is quite surprising. I, Robot may just be the most subversive $100-million-plus movie ever made, with the kind of sinister attitude usually associated with exploitation or art-house fare.
In particular, the film is filled with interesting parallels between robots and racism — which is given an intriguing spin by having the prejudices against the nonhuman participants come primarily from black actor Will Smith’s Del Spooner. “I saw a robot running with a woman’s purse. What was I supposed to think?” he asks his superior, Lt. Bergin (Chi McBride, The Terminal), after Spooner wrongly arrests a robot for “stealing” a purse. Later, robot mogul Lawrence Robinson (Bruce Greenwood, Hollywood Homicide) slyly accuses Spooner of bigotry, suggesting that the policeman wants to believe a robot is guilty of murder simply because Spooner doesn’t “care for their kind.” (All of this would play better if the film — which otherwise oddly provides more Smith beefcake than Bridget Moynahan cheesecake — didn’t insist on injecting a wholly arbitrary, homophobic gag between Spooner and Robinson.)
By the time I, Robot gets around to explaining what’s at the bottom of the strange events taking place, it’s hard to miss the (certainly intentional) parallels between the reasoning of the villain and the language of the Patriot Act. As in X 2 — which offers a similar, though more specific, subtext — this works because it’s a logical outgrowth of the plot.
For a big summer movie, I, Robot boasts a remarkably dense story line, with Spooner’s prejudices against robots the very key to the film’s mystery. Indeed, the inventor of the robots, Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell, The Sum of All Fears), has counted on Spooner’s bigotry. And what actually drives the action here is the robots’ evolution to the point where they can interpret the three laws of robotics in a manner that completely subverts those laws (and here again, there’s plenty of subtext to chew on).
At the same time, it’s impossible to overlook the fact that I, Robot, for all its merits, borrows shamelessly from a variety of sources — especially Blade Runner and The Matrix series. The former is hardly surprising, since director Alex Proyas has evoked that cult favorite at least twice already (The Crow and Dark City). And in the case of the latter, it’s not much of a stretch to go from Spooner’s seemingly all-wise, pie-baking grandmother (Adrian Ricard, Anger Management) to the Oracle of The Matrix. Still, there’s less a sense of rip-off here than of homage and influence, and that popular culture is merely being interpolated into the proceedings.
The biggest surprise is that it all works — or so nearly does that it seems nit-picky to complain. Smith is impossibly good in the lead, and the obligatory one-liners that seemed so arbitrary in the film’s trailer are actually held in check and nicely integrated into the script. Plus, the Hollywood Screenwriting 101 antagonistic quasi-romantic relationship between Spooner and no-nonsense scientist Susan Calvin (Moynahan) is handled with enough assurance to overcome its cliched underpinnings.
But perhaps the most successful aspect of I, Robot is the creation of the film’s “renegade” robot, Sonny (given voice by Alan Tudyk, A Knight’s Tale). Sounding somewhat creepily like Hal in Kubrick’s 2001, Sonny is a CGI creation that has the kind of believable reality we find in The Lord of the Rings‘ Gollum and with the mechanical tentacles of “Doc Ock” in Spider-Man 2.
In other words, though I, Robot occasionally succumbs to a bit of Hollywoodized cuteness, it also manages to turn an effect into a real character. That in itself makes this film worth a look.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke