Actionscifi's Blog

Classic Movie Review – I, Robot (2004)

Spoilers are in orange.

Director Alex Proyas has genuine pedigree in the sci-fi universe, having ruminated on the question of what might be controlling us well before The Matrix came along (Dark City) and having directed one of the most enjoyable comic book movie ever brought to the screen (The Crow).

So it was reasonable to assume that Proyas’ handling of sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov’s revolutionary writing on robots would produce a cracking movie.  After seeing it, the only real question to ask is, what went wrong?

I, Robot is based on Asimov’s books of the same name, which envisaged a world where robots are ubiquitous and their service to humanity guaranteed by the “three laws of robotics” hard-wired into their brains:

  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.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Asimov sought to explore these laws and to propose situations that would test the boundaries.  He sought ambiguity where there was seemingly noneI, Robot does enact one such moral dilemma – what should a robot do if two humans are in danger and only one can be saved? – but in the end this is an action film and the nuance of Asimov’s concept is excised because if it wasn’t, there just wouldn’t be that much action.

And so we begin with our hero, Del Spooner (Will Smith), being called to the scene of the apparent suicide of Dr Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), the founder of the world’s biggest robotics company on the eve of the rollout of its new robot model.  Of course, we suspect foul play and it’s not long before we have a suspect in the form of Sonny (Alan Tudyk), who is of one of these new-generation robots.  From there, it’s a short hop to lots of hair-raising chases and all sorts of conspiracy theories better left out of this review.

The character of Spooner is similar that of John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) in the middling 1993 futuristic thriller Demolition Man: a cop hopelessly out of step with the times (it’s 2035), who wears old shoes, listens to old music, rides a motorbike and refuses to embrace new technology.  Luckily for the film studio, Spooner (like Spartan before him) thinks the greatest age in history was ours and likes to live his life as if it’s 2004: roll out the latest model Converse sneakers for gratuitous product placement, people!  Being a technophobe, Spooner is suspicious of robots and suspects that they will eventually find a way to circumvent the three laws and start menacing society.

The copying of Demolition Man is only one example of the egregious cannibalisation of sci-fi whizzing past us at break-neck speed:  funky European automobiles (Minority Report), a wise old lady baking food in her kitchen (The Matrix) and dreaming robots (Blade Runner) to name a few, all of which is tolerable if we feel like the film is standing on the shoulders of giants.  Alas, it rarely rises to their belly buttons.

The performances of the supporting cast are generally tepid but, to be honest, there are few humans with significant roles in this film.  Most of them are consigned to rehashing the same, tired old clichés of hard-nosed police boss, (Chi McBride) obsessive corporate captain (Bruce Greenwood), enthusiastic young hero-worshipper (Shia LaBeouf).

The biggest cliché of all is Spooner’s love interest, Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynihan), a high-level scientist who is a workaholic and a woman, meaning that she is thirty-something and childless.  Hollywood should meet Dr Fiona Wood some time.  She’s also white, so it is fated that her relationship with Spooner will not go beyond mutual admiration.  If you want to see a black man and a white woman getting jiggy, well you’ll just have to rent a Spike Lee film.

This film is evidence that when you give an innovative, daring director a lemon, it’s probably still going to be a lemon once they’ve finished with it.  Alex Proyas has made his name by taking risks, by making us believe that crazy ideas – a man turns into a crow to avenge the killers of his girlfriend, aliens kidnap people from earth and place them on another planet to study them – are credible; therefore, it’s no surprise to me that he cannot pull off a film about something fairly rudimentary (robots gone bad!).  Innovators are usually the worst people to handle straightforward, uncreative projects.  In more recent times, see Ang Lee squeezing the life out of The Incredible Hulk.  In addition, Will Smith is not Proyas’ kind of star. He is forced to brood and sulk when he’s best at strutting and cursing.

A more fundamental problem with this film is that the baddies are robots.  Star Wars Episode II – Attack of the Clones proved that lifeless protagonists (in that case, a whole army of clones v a whole army of droids) produce a lifeless movie and that point is reinforced here.  An essential trait of a baddie is his or her fallibility:  the baddie may be incredibly hard to kill, may be stronger than our hero, may be surrounded by many similarly endowed baddies but in the end, the baddie fears death or capture.  A robot feels nothing, fears nothing, cares for nothing.  And so when Spooner is driving through a tunnel and being set upon by a platoon of leaping, menacing robots, we may ooh and ah at the explosions and we may fear for Spooner’s safety but we scarcely even notice the fact that these robots are being disposed of one-by-one.  Proyas may have summed up the vacuousness of these protagonists best when he shows one of them disappearing under the wheel of a truck in a shower of sparks, his face entirely expressionless.

With genuine tension lacking, the last part of the film attempts to explore the three laws in more detail and the result is something between lip service and a detailed thesis.  Without giving too much away, imagine that a room-full of lawyers got a hold of those seemingly iron-clad laws and thought of a whole bunch of ways in which they didn’t properly apply.  Chaos?  Of course.  In fact, the film comes alive in the last 30 minutes with large-scale scenes of rioting and violence accompanying the sudden dissection of the three laws. These final scenes seem like an after thought, but I couldn’t help thinking that they made the better basis for a movie, and that the first 70 minutes should have been left on the cutting room floor.

Score:  45/100

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2 Comments so far
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I enjoyed this movie more than you did, especially the character of Sonny the Robot. I totally agree that the last half hour or so, where the laws are followed to their logical conclusion, are aces above what came before.

Comment by Dennis the Vizsla

Hi Dennis,
This is one of those films that I’ve enjoyed watching more the second and third times, once I’d got over my initial disappointment. It’s almost always enjoyable to lose yourself in a bid budget sci fi movie, even if the storyline isn’t everything you hoped for. Kind of explains why I love this stuff enough to write about it.

Comment by actionscifi

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