I, Robot

I, Robot
Director: Alex Proyas
Screenplay: Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman (screen story by Jeff Vintar; based on the book by Isaac Asimov)
Stars: Will Smith (Del Spooner), Bridget Moynahan (Susan Calvin), Alan Tudyk (Sonny), James Cromwell (Dr. Alfred Lanning), Bruce Greenwood (Lawrence Robertson), Adrian L. Ricard (Granny), Chi McBride (Lt. John Bergin), Jerry Wasserman (Baldez), Fiona Hogan (V.I.K.I.)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2004
Country: U.S.
I, Robot
I, RobotI, Robot was inspired by Isaac Asimov's classic 1950 short story collection of the same title, but anyone looking for intense, thought-provoking science fiction should probably stick with the page-bound source. This is not to say that this big-budget summer tentpole movie is devoid of ideas. Quite the contrary: There are all kinds of fascinating philosophical and logical conundrums swimming frantically amid the sea of CGI-created mayhem, much like the proverbial "ghosts in the machine" referenced in the movie. Unfortunately, though most of them eventually drown in the digital waves.

As we quickly learn, robots have become a staple item of the near future (the movie takes place in 2035), being churned out like personal computers by massive corporations to take care of regular work drudgery like taking out the trash, walking the dog, and carrying home the groceries. The biggest of the manufacturers is U.S. Robotics, which has the tallest glass skyscraper in Chicago and is on the verge of the largest robot distribution in history, which will bring the world's human-to-robot ratio to 5:1. The movie's visual juxtaposition of the old and the new in robotics technology is cleverly striking: The brand-spanking-new NS-5 models look like semi-translucent iMacs that have taken on human form, while the older models look not a bit unlike crash-test dummies, underscoring their impending obsolesce. Mere days before this mass distribution of NS-5's takes place, however, the founder of U.S. Robotics and the inventor of modern robot technology, Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), commits spectacular suicide by leaping from the top of his own building.

In comes Del Spooner, a tough-talking, wise-cracking Chicago police detective (natch) played by Will Smith, returning once again to his staple summer hero character mold, albeit with an edge of deep-seated bitterness we haven't seen before. Unlike everyone else, Spooner has an inherent distrust of robot technology. He is not placated by the seemingly unbendable "Three Laws of Robotics" (the basis of all of Asimov's robot stories): (1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; (2) A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; and (3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. As it turns out, Spooner is not completely alone in his misgivings; Dr. Lanning also had his suspicions, as we see him in file video footage discussing the possibilities of robots "evolving" consciousness, which might mean an ability to override the laws.

Spooner's suspicion seems to be confirmed when he discovers a robot nicknamed Sonny (voiced by Alan Tudyk) hiding in Dr. Lanning's office after his apparent suicide. All clues point to Sonny's having been involving in Lanning's death, especially when he runs from the police despite having been given direct orders to stop (so much for Law #2). While all the other robots in the movie are essentially emotionless automatons, Sonny shows signs of humanity, including the ability to feel emotions, dream, and ask philosophical questions such as, "What am I?" Much like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Sonny turns out to be the most recognizably human character in the movie, and we end up feeling more for him than we do for Smith's tortured action hero.

Spooner can't quite go it alone in solving the mystery of Lanning's death, so he finds a reluctant partner in Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), a psychiatrist who works for U.S. Robotics to make their robot products seem more human. Dr. Calvin believes firmly in the Three Laws of Robotics, and even when they are broken right in front of her eyes she manages to concoct some kind of explanation that justifies the bottom line. Eventually, she begins to see things Spooner's way, even as that puts her at odds with the corporation she works for, which is embodied in CEO Lawrence Robertson (go-to jerk Bruce Greenwood), the ultimate Bill Gates gone bad.

I, Robot marks a sharp turn in tone and style for director Alex Proyas, who directed two exceedingly dark, intriguing sci-fi movies in the 1990s, The Crow (1994) and Dark City (1998). Where those films were elegantly moody in their noir stylings, I, Robot is sleek and bright, polished to such a fine shine that almost everything appears to be CGI, even the actors.

Proyas handles the movie's numerous action sequences quite well, making them thrilling without devolving into incoherence, even when the camera is spinning 360 degrees around narrow catwalks hundreds of feet in the air while thousands of robots climb spider-like toward the movie's besieged heroes. Unfortunately, Proyas succumbs to the inane post-Matrix tendency to pump up action sequences with sudden moments of slow motion gymnastics that here are so egregiously inserted that they are almost laughable. Such sequences also endow Spooner with an overtly superheroic quality that completely undermines the movie's attempt to keep him humanly grounded; this is, after all, a character whose psychology is based on a crucial life moment in which he was impotent to save either himself or another person. All the work Smith does in his performance to make Spooner complicated is essentially erased when he flies improbably through the air with multiple guns a'blazing.

Ultimately, I, Robot shares the conflicted sense of mission experienced by its robot characters. On the one hand, it wants to be a smart, provocative exploration of the nature of artificial intelligence and its relation to humanity (this is particularly evident in a scene in which Spooner tells the story of how infallible robot logic saved his life, but burdened him with a sense of survivor's guilt that almost deadens him). On the other hand, it wants to be a crash-and-burn flick in which the plot is repeatedly subsumed by the dictates of fast-motion action sequences. Sometimes, these sequences are well done enough that you don't mind how the story grinds to a halt in order to indulge them, but it's hard to get away from the nagging feeling that it could have been something more. This is one that got away.

I, Robot All-Access Collector's Edition Two-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
  • English DTS 5.1 Surround
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround
  • French Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish, French
  • Audio commentary by director Alex Proyas and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman
  • Audio commentary by production designer Patrick Tatopolous, editor Richard Learoyd, visual effects supervisor John Nelson, associate producer John Kilkenny, animation supervisor Andrew Jones, and visual effects supervisor Brian Van't Hul
  • Audio commentary by composer Marco Beltrami with isolated score
  • "The Making of I, Robot" featurette
  • "Days Out of Days" production diaries
  • CGI and design featurettes
  • "Sentient Machines" (robotic behavior)
  • "Three Laws Safe": conversations about sci-fi and robots
  • "The Filmmakers' Toolbox" (VFX how-to clues)
  • Deleted scenes and alternate ending
  • Distributor20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
    Release DateMay 24, 2004

    I, Robot features a fantastic, reference-quality anamorphic widescreen transfer. The image is sharp and clear, with excellent detail, shimmering whites, solid blacks, and well-saturated colors. The overall look may feel a bit artificial, particularly with the massive amounts of computer-generated imagery of metallic and plastic objects. However, it works well with the tone and futuristic context of the film.

    This disc features both DTS 5.1 surround and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtracks, both of which, like the image, are outstanding. I, Robot has a large, expansive soundtrack, with plenty of thundering bass for the explosions, but also a good deal of sonic detail that really brings to life the teaming world of Chicago in 2035. The hollow echoes of an enormous warehouse full of robots is as detailed and robust as the fiery explosions and squealing wheels of the tunnel chase scene.

    As far as supplements go, I, Robot is incredibly comprehensive. The first disc features three audio commentaries: one by director Alex Proyas and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman; one by production designer Patrick Tatopolous, editor Richard Learoyd, visual effects supervisor John Nelson, associate producer John Kilkenny, animation supervisor Andrew Jones, and visual effects supervisor Brian Van't Hul; and one by composer Marco Beltrami, which is actually an isolated score track with Beltrami's comments during the musical lulls. The first disc also features a 12-minute making-of featurette that is mostly just promotional fluff.

    The real meat is on the second disc, which consists entirely of what 20th Century Fox refers to as a "four-hour interactive tour" of the making of the film. Basically, it consists of a dozens of featurettes on the film's production, which include production diaries, CGI and design featurettes, deleted scenes, and conversations about science fiction and robots. You can either skip around the various featurettes, or you can watch them in a sequenced order that roughly follows the chronological unfolding of the film's narrative. The amount of information here is fairly staggering, and it would definitely take at least four hours to get through all of it.

    Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright ©2005 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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