I, Robot (2004)

No doubt about it, Will Smith is the best hope our planet has in the face of adversity. He’s taken down aliens three times, foiled one conspiracy, stopped the South from rising again, and the man still finds the time to help Matt Damon with his golf swing. I fear we almost may be taking Smith’s world-saving exploits for granted. Smith’s newest chance to save the world arrives in I, Robot. Can Big Willie save the world yet again, or has he punched his time card one too many times?

In 2035, man has a new class of immigrants to do all the menial tasks no one wants to do – robots that look like crash test dummies. U.S. Robotics (USR) wants to push their new fall line of robots and make sure every happy home has a happy robot. Del Spooner (Will Smith) is a detective wary of our robotic friends. His colleagues laugh at his paranoia, remarking that no robot has ever committed a crime. This is thanks to the three laws hard-wired into every robot: 1) A robot cannot harm a human being, 2) A robot must obey a human beings order as long as it does not conflict with Law #1, and 3) A robot can do whatever to survive as long as this does not conflict with the other laws.

This sounds great, except the robot creator (James Cromwell, always there if you need an old guy role) has apparently plummeted to his death from his USR office and the circumstances involving his demise are dubious at best. Spooner works alongside a robot technician/shrink (Bridget Moynahan) to find out more about what exactly is going on within USR and its suspicious CEO (the always shady Bruce Greenwood). Spooner discovers that a robot, who wishes to go by the name of Sonny, may have sent his creator to his death and may also be the first step toward uncovering the truth behind a grim conspiracy.

Smith has never really been a great actor but he is likable and charming enough, so that gets him through the day. The problem is that when he’s saving the world in summer blockbusters he has a tendency to go into Will Smith Mode, which plays out like he’s on auto-pilot. His stares, awkward mannerisms and “aw shucks” humor seem to be the same in every film. This isn’’t to say that Smith cannot be a capable actor, but it seems that when a movie’s budget goes over a certain amount he resorts to playing Will Smith: World Saver and not so much a character of real value.

The other actors are more so playing vague archetypes than they are anything else. Greenwood is the sneaky, oily executive; Moynahan is the cold scientist learning how to be human once more; the invaluable Chi McBride is the no-nonsense police chief who rolls his eyes at Spooner’s crazy theories; and Shia LeBeof actually shows up for all of three minutes playing some kind of juvenile delinquent that is wholly unnecessary to the film.

The movie’’s greatest accomplishment is the character of Sonny, modeled after a physical performance by actor Alan Tudyk. Sonny’s calm line readings, bursts of emotion, and questions on humanity make him a character the audience connects with, especially with the detached nature of Smith and Moynahan’’s acting. Bet you never would have guessed this is from the same guy who played Steve the Pirate in Dodgeball.

I, Robot isn’’t exactly going to establish new ground in the world of science fiction. It’s mostly a detective story with some twinges of sci-fi philosophy. As a detective story it adheres to the laws of detective movies, like how NO ONE ever believes the hero on his hypothetical assumptions and paranoia, which will of course always be right, and how the hero can only solve the case after he is thrown off it and gives up his badge. For two thirds of I, Robot we get an amiable, if average, detective story set in the future. Then we get a slightly incoherent final act where robots go all-out crazy.

Director Alex Proyas takes a step back from the grim, noir-ish worlds he worked with so effectively in The Crow and Dark City, and presents a cleaner and more sterilized world. His technical elements, like cinematography and musical score, are still well above par for the summer blockbuster. Proyas is a gifted visual tactician that knows how to wow an audience.

The sleek production design, fancy special effects, and strong visionary directing help lift an average story. Some of the story elements may not all work -like Spooner’’s flimsy reason he hates all robots, and Moynahan’’s character being very cold because she works around robots (get it? get it?)- but the professionalism of the people behind the scenes help make a rather exciting and occasionally thoughtful movie. Sonny’’s questions about life and death as he’s near termination are a nice addition to add something more to a summer blockbuster than explosions and car chases. Of course I, Robot also has some exciting car chases and action sequences. Certainly other, better sci-fi movies have dealt with these issues much deeper, and I, Robot seems to only skim the surface of intellectual debate, but at least it’s something (though this sounds really defeatist).

Bearing little resemblance to Asimov’s collection of short stories, I, Robot is more a stream-lined sci-fi action flick, but it’s still a satisfying and stylishly entertaining diversion. Sci-fi fans may grumble at the notion of transforming a complex novel into a watered down action film, but I, Robot is a crowd pleaser that delivers the thrills when it needs to. If Will Smith keeps up this world saving pace he may get a little haggard and start turning into Danny Glover’’s Lethal Weapon character: “I’’m getting too old for this aliens/robots/other aliens/more aliens/giant mechanical spiders shit.” Well, at least Smith’’s good at it.

Nate’s Grade: B

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About natezoebl

One man. Many movies. I am a cinephile (which spell-check suggests should really be "epinephine"). I was told that a passion for movies was in his blood since I was conceived at a movie convention. While scientifically questionable, I do remember a childhood where I would wake up Saturday mornings, bounce on my parents' bed, and watch Siskel and Ebert's syndicated TV show. That doesn't seem normal. At age 17, I began writing movie reviews and have been unable to stop ever since. I was the co-founder and chief editor at PictureShowPundits.com (2007-2014) and now write freelance. I have over 1400 written film reviews to my name and counting. I am also a proud member of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association (COFCA) since 2012. In my (dwindling) free time, I like to write uncontrollably. I wrote a theatrical genre mash-up adaptation titled "Our Town... Attacked by Zombies" that was staged at my alma mater, Capital University in the fall of 2010 with minimal causalities and zero lawsuits. I have also written or co-written sixteen screenplays and pilots, with one of those scripts reviewed on industry blog Script Shadow. Thanks to the positive exposure, I am now also dipping my toes into the very industry I've been obsessed over since I was yea-high to whatever people are yea-high to in comparisons.

Posted on July 16, 2004, in 2004 Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. It’s an okay film. I enjoy it on occasion.

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