RIORI Volume 3, Installment 11: Alex Proyas’ “I, Robot” (2004)


I, Robot


The Players…

Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, Alan Tudyk, Bruce Greenwood and Chi McBride, with Shia LeBeouf and James Cromwell.


The Story…

In mid-21st Century Chicago, robots have displaced humans in almost every way from menial labor and the tedium of modern life. Robots are made to serve humanity, provide for and protect them; it’s in their basic programming. However, when one of the newer models appears to have gone rogue and killed its creator, it’s up to technophobe Det. Del Spooner to crack the case. No robot has ever harmed, let alone killed anyone before. But as a smirking Del could tell you, there’s a first time for anything.


The Rant…

Science fiction as a genre has always been a strange beast. Ostensibly, SF concerns itself with futuristic concepts like space travel, alien cultures and technology unbound. However, it is at heart stories, parables and satire about the human condition under a very focused lens. I say this in comparison to most “straight” fiction; novels are almost always about the human condition in relation to the conflicts that people encounter through life, love and leaving using very broad strokes. Ultimately its aim is the same as straight fiction. But their messages are usually subjective, albeit we as people being the subject. We always take away something personal in the abstract from reading a novel or short story or poem or whatever.

SF is objective. Very objective. The lens I mentioned is aimed squarely at the human condition as isolated from environments very not human. You know, artifices couching the nature of humanity against backdrops of warp drive, terraforming, artificial intelligence, etc. Sure, these ideas entice fans of SF—or maybe just the plain curious—into entering adventures exploring other worlds, but the core of SF tales is examining the human factor with a very specific concept in mind: paradoxes. Sure, there are paradoxes in congenital stories, too, like doing the wrong thing for the right reason and whatnot. In SF the issues arise like what happens to humanity when all this advancement begins to whittle away at very fiber of what it truly means to be human? And what exactly is that anyway? Does it really lie within us all, or does the Universe have all the answers out there somewhere? Or is it all just the yin chasing the yang for all eternity? Is that how it’s always been?

*belch*

That was deep. Sorry about that.

No shocker. I’ve always dug science fiction. It must’ve been when I first saw Star Wars at an early age that I caught the bug. Now I know the die-hard fans are presently screaming at me and wadding up empty beer cans to remind me that the adventures of Han, Yoda and Chewie are fantasy. Look. I was six. A New Hope had spaceships and aliens and robots (droids, whatever). It was science fiction. I’m not a real Star Wars fan, and never looked very deep into its philosophical machinations or ever widening mythos. It was just that the ideas of space travel and robotics and sh*t like that really tickled my pre-teen fancy. Maybe I’ll tell you about my other fancies another time, if you’re nice.

*winks*

(Speaking of the next Star Wars  movie, I can only imagine what JJ Abrams is gonna do to the franchise after seeing his Star Trek spectacles. Permanently grind Harry Ford’s career into powder seems most probable).

So big surprise, I watched a lot of other SF movies also. You know; the biggies. Prereqs. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Alien, its sequel Aliens (to which I can quote the dialogue—“Game over, man!”—verbatim) from James Cameron as well as his Terminator films and—by my opinion, his best film—The Abyss. Of course there was the original Star Wars trilogy, in addition to Dune (quit laughing. I thought it was great, but only the unedited, three-plus hour director’s cut). And a good chunk of Spielberg’s projects, although I should’ve avoided Jurassic Park 2. I did the whole schmeer. I also somehow parlayed this youthful enthusiasm into taking on a bizarre examination of spacey sounding electronic/modernist musicians like Kraftwerk and Phillip Glass. Hey, I was a teen. In hindsight I don’t get it either. Now back off and quit smacking me with your pressings of Yoko’s Season Of Glass. I can hear that the snow is falling!

*Pardon the interruption. The Webmaster has called in the Obscurity Police to beat your friendly, neighborhood blogger back to his senses with rubber hoses and a threat to drastically decrease his allotted bitspace*

Whew. Back. Ow. Where was I? Oh, yeah: sci-fi. Who’s Phillip Glass?

Naturally, I also read quite a bit of the big names of SF: Bradbury, Asimov, Ellison, Dick, Gibson and Clarke. Clarke—Arthur C, that is—was one of my faves. Got hip to him after seeing 2001. His books really made you think, and not in some fantastical way like Bradbury or Dick did. Clarke’s books were so painfully steeped in actual science and creating not only plausible, but feasible futurescapes it demanded you to not ask yourself, “Well, what if?” but rather, “Hey, why not?” Clarke’s works were so damned prescient it made the reader, if they were paying attention, almost demand of society, “What’s taking so long? We can do this! We have Science!” (cue Thomas Dolby orchestra hit). I guess it’s not all that surprising that the guy who invented the geosynchronous orbiting satellite and predicted digital tablets—2001’s “datapad” concept beat iPads to the fore by a good forty years—would awash his books with not only science but its development, applications and possible dangers, like nuclear war and homicidal AI. Such musings invited several paradoxical devices that are now SF story staples. Science versus psychology.

Although Clarke’s take on the human factor was decisively optimistic, his tales were rather cold. Recall my rambling above (which part?) about the tight lens? Virtually all of Clarke’s stories deal with such examinations in very stark contexts. Not in a cynical fashion, but in basic terms, all this tech cannot deliver humans from the truth that we are all animals at heart. In a Golding sense, the beast is just below the surface waiting to get out. That is, unless science—reason—wins out. Clarke’s techscapes often don’t, and the caution he insinuated in his prose later made manifest with political malfeasance, abuse of science and the perils of technology dehumanizing us. But hell, such a bleak outlook sure made for a killer SF movie in 2001, crazy HAL 9000 or no. Talk about the dangers of AI. Whew.

(An aside: I once heard NASA nixing the idea of a master computer program that watchdogged the total operation of the Enterprise, the first space shuttle, after considering what HAL did in 2001. No lie. Now that’s what Clarke was talking about! Ba-zinga!)

Speaking of AI, Clarke’s buddy Isaac Asimov had a lot to say about the emergence of artificial intelligence also, but in a more theological way, continuing SF paradoxes. Unlike Clarke, Asimov was much, much more philosophical—some would claim flowery—in his endeavors than his comrade ever was. Despite his stories employing devices—some would say trappings—of space travel, alien cultures and technology unbound, Asimov’s worlds were all about humanity’s place in the universe on a metaphysical level. You know. The human condition under that damned magnifying glass where being human seems so small and insignificant and blah blah blah. Asimov took his sh*t way beyond the beyond. If you’ve ever read his Foundation trilogy, you hear what I’m screaming.

After Foundation, Asimov’s Robot chronicles are his most famous, if not defining contribution to the genre. I think its tenets are applied today to real-life robotic engineers. Asimov’s cautionary tales not doubt influenced robotic engineers to be quite judicious in designing their machines as well programming code for all their subroutines. Wouldn’t want the slaves becoming the masters and all that. I’d say in part thanks to Asimov’s foresight, such careful designing explains why the articulated welding robots in Detroit don’t ask for coffee breaks (that and not needing coffee) or the drones erasing brown people from the Mideast complain about vertigo.

Just a minute. Fox News is on the phone. BRB.

*flushes iPhone down toilet*

Don’t worry. It had a Catalyst case. And I own a plunger. I was saying?

Book one of the Robot stories, I, Robot, dealt with the human factor in a world populated by AI. Robots built to serve humanity and so on, and all the abstract ramifications that go with it. One of the automatons achieves self-awareness, and this invites all sorts of navel gazing about the nature of self, the sanctity of life, what makes being human being human and yadda yadda yadda. If it sounds like I’m downplaying Asimov’s magnum opus, I am, if only to reflect on this week’s installment and being snarky for snark’s sake. As I have said before, I have my own Standard to maintain, too.

Me being all ribald and a d*ck is also reflective as a paradox between SF—supposedly focused on exactitude of the human condition—and how its message is inflicted on popular culture via the media, in this case movies. We’re not taking about any of those sociopolitical, esoteric or humanist objectives found in classic SF stories. Nope. We be talkin’ ‘bout the usual culprit in Tinsel Town that gives us less art for more money: profits.

He we go again. More paradox stuff.

SF master Harlan Ellison wrote an infamous essay entitled “Xenogenesis” commenting on how SF fans fail to appreciate the work their idols do in trying to examine above human factor message thingy. The title refers to a phenomenon in nature when occasionally an offspring does not resemble its parent Think “The Ugly Ducking” parable. Well, that works in making most SF movies, too, especially if it’s an adaptation of a book. The offspring sometimes does not resemble the parent.

Keeping Ellison in mind, here comes a good example of how SF can get a tad perverted when it comes to making a movie. Take notes. There might be a quiz later.

James Cameron’s sophomore effort was his now-legendary The Terminator. Of note, his debut film was a B-movie munchkin called Piranha 2: The Spawning. That movie entailed the hi-jinks surrounding exploring shipwrecks, killer fish and people wantonly f*cking on the beach. Also—true story—Cameron never even finished directing the film due to food poisoning (Hell, we all gotta start somewhere). Now I’m not gonna bash Cameron. I’ve enjoyed all his films, even the drippy Titanic and the goofy True Lies. But there are circumstances surrounding the uniqueness of The Terminator’s storyline that have been circulating for years in regards to its origin. Again, the beast did not exactly reflect its parentage.

For those who don’t know The Terminator’s plot by now, here you go. For those who do know, I do not care: An assassin cyborg from 2029 travels backwards in time 45 years. Its mission is to find and kill a woman that will eventually give birth to a child who will grow up to lead the uprising against the hordes of evil, sentient machines bent on eradicating humanity. The cyborg—the titular terminator—is an example of what happens when Asimov’s robot laws are not adhered to, by the way.

To rescue the woman, the humans sent back their own emissary to save her and hopefully subdue the terminator, an elite ‘bot-killin’ soldier who has the skills to pay the bills. The rest is a lot cat-and-mouse chase scenes, ridiculous stunts, heavy firepower and a lot of stuff going kerboom. That and Arnie shooting a lot of people. I mean a lot. This is where Schwarzenegger’s dubious film career takes flight. Still a great film, by the way.

Here’s where things get all blurry. It’s when the paradox occurs, when Hollywood mucks with what makes SF unique: analyzing the human condition in an environment that makes humanity insignificant. I’m not faulting Cameron here, not exactly. His mistake was a combination of fanboy worship, directorial enthusiasm and more than a little hubris. Where an ignorant Hollywood got their thumb in the pie is where the trouble with The Terminator’s production lay.

It wasn’t shown in the theatrical release, but on home video—right as the end credits rolled—The Terminator director and crew gave a shout-out to Harlan Ellison for his inspiration. In actuality this was less of giving kudos and more like a sort of limp-wristed slow clap. The tribute was added to appease the mercurial, often litigious Ellison who felt (correctly) that he was both robbed of creative credit and therefore any possible royalties the film would generate. Ellison sued, and the case was settled out of court where the man eventually got his due. Issue more or less resolved. In the end and by his own admission, Ellison thought The Terminator was great by the way

So what does ol’ Harlan have to do with Cameron’s The Terminator? Simply put, Ellison wrote the stories—teleplays, actually—on which the movie was based. Cameron modestly boosted ‘em, and without apology.

Back in the ‘60’s there was ABC’s answer to CBS’ revered Twilight Zone TV anthology series, The Outer Limits. Limits was much darker (and freakin’ scarier) than its cousin. It focused on hard, stark, apocalyptic science fiction rather than Rod Serling’s social commentary disguised as fantasy. Ellison himself penned a pair of Limits scripts, two of the best. One was simply titled Soldier, and was about a programmed-to-kill mercenary from the distant future who accidentally gets zapped into the past only to be pursued by his enemy. Our soldier eventually bests his adversary while defending the family that rescued him. The other tale, Demon With A Glass Hand, is about an android charged with protecting the last vestiges of humanity from an invading alien army from the future hell-bent on colonizing Earth.

Sound vaguely familiar?

After seeing The Terminator, Ellison felt the same way, hence the lawsuit. Cameron eventually fessed up to caging the stories and mutating them into his movie. However—not unlike an unexpected guest at a funeral—a paradox occurred. Hollywood failed to catch wind of Cameron’s tooling during production. To this day I find that amazing to believe. You wanna know how much oversight Hollywood has to maintain avoiding creative culpability? They have phalanxes of lawyers at the ready to make sure no scenarist or director—directly or inadvertently—lifts some other artist’s property, claim it as their own, and damn well ignore any copyright laws being f*cked with. If that ever happens—perhaps in Ellison’s case—much face and many, many dollars would be lost.

Well, it happened anyway with the first Terminator. One would think that Hollywood would’ve—should’ve—been more careful, especially with Ellison active in both TV and film. I guess they smelled a hit (on the cheap, too), as well as the bucks oozing from Ah-nuld’s every pore. Besides (shrug), science fiction is junk culture anyway, and who really reads anymore except maybe SF fans? And after all, The Terminator was more or less an action movie anyway, so why split hairs?

Well, Ellison brought out the shears. The reason why Harlan probably didn’t destroy Cameron’s career outright despite the lifted material is that Cameron handled the script in a very shrewd way. Even if The Terminator was overtly an action flick, it had enough sincere hallmarks handled very cagily to appease most SF proponents. Including Ellison apparently, who later went on the record saying he knew the film’s source material was impeccable—wink wink, nudge nudge. So beers all around, and Tinsel Town narrowly dodges (yet another) bullet.

And that’s the story of Avatar, the galaxy’s greatest Dances With Wolves rip-off. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

Seriously though, you might be asking yourself: what does all that have to do with I, Robot, the books and the film? Xenogenesis. A paradox. I, Robot the film barely suggests any affiliation with Asimov’s stories. Like The Terminator, Robot is mostly an action film with a healthy dose of “whodunit?” thrown in. But did it do a keen enough job on its own merit to earn the praise and street cred The Terminator received?

Well…


Chicago detective Del Spooner (Smith) has a secret. It’s more an open secret. He hates robots. And when you’re living in the city that seats the multi-national, multi-billion dollar US Robotics Corporation, you find yourself in a boatload of hate.

US Robotics is responsible for the lion’s share of both domestic and labor robots that displaced humans from doing the crap jobs no one wants to do. The ‘bots take out the trash, they dig ditches, they’re menservants to the general public who don’t want to walk their own dogs anymore. Spooner feels that all this anthropomorphic slave labor dehumanizes people, makes them lazy. Del’s a low tech kind of guy, and likes it that way. Less fuss, more hands-on stuff.

It’s no surprise that Spooner’s got it in for robots, so much so that he’s always on the lookout for any robotic criminal behavior, which never comes. Robots are funny like that. They are programmed to never harm a human, always protect humans and always sacrifice themselves in order to serve mankind. Spooner’s CO Lt. Bergin (McBride) is always quick to remind him of that. No robot has ever, ever committed a crime. Neither purse snatching nor murder. Del is tilting at windmills. Despite this irrefutable fact, Spoon’s prejudices keep him both on edge and perpetual surveillance.

Then one day Del’s paranoia pays off. You know what they say; you only have to be right once.

There’s been a murder at US Robotics HQ. The victim is Spooner’s on again/off again connection in the robot industry, Dr. Alfred Lanning (Cromwell), the brain trust for all robot design and programming. Looks like the good doctor took a long walk off a short pier from his lab from many stories up to the concourse below. Lanning left a holographic memento for Spooner. A vauge warning to him of some possible nefarious activities bubbling just below USR’s spotless surface.

Before Spoon can scream conspiracy, Lanning’s protégé Dr Laura Calvin (Moynahan) comes to his assistance. Del falls back on his suspicions and proposes to her that one of Lanning’s creations went on the fritz and committed patricide. Although distraught, Calvin reassures the detective about robotic programming. No robot can harm nor be permitted to harm a human being. Whatever.

Investigating Lanning’s lab, Del and Calvin are assaulted by one of the latest iterations of Lanning’s work, a very human-like robot calling itself Sonny (Tudyk). Sonny’s the prime suspect, and after being subdued it’s taken into custody for questioning. Sonny pleads for leniency and justice and bemoans any possibility that it would kill its “father.”

Needless to say, Del’s not convinced. Sonny is dodgy—a rather human trait—about what went down that fateful day. By matter of right place/wrong time, Sonny’s case isn’t looking too good. But the machine carries on about “programming” and “service” and Lanning wanting it to be all over.

“It?” What “it?”

Maybe Spooner’s phobia isn’t all that unfounded after all. Something stinks in the bowels of USR, and either by personal prejudice, corporate greed, a righteous sense of justice or simply the lure of a unique case, both Del and Calvin are going to get to the bottom of this.

But both better be careful, the walls—the city—has ears. Not to mention a very large robot population…


Just the other day, my buddies asked me which movie was on the menu for the newest installment of RIORI. When I told them I, Robot, it turned out they had a few thoughts—and Standards—of their own regarding this cinematic trifle. This may illustrate that The Standard regarding the movies I scrape down to the bare metal here might be onto something. All I have to do now is figure out what.

The responses I got were equally divided, from “I like that movie” to blargh, and up came two feet of intestine. For everyone who said that I, Robot was a good way to waste a Saturday afternoon, someone else was scratching their head. I even had one guy (who wasn’t too fond of the film) cite a few scenes that really confused him. This isn’t a spoiler; the scene had no real bearing on the flow of the plot, so this shouldn’t hurt a bit.

He asked me about what was up with Det. Spooner and his beloved black Chuck Taylors. There were a few scenes apropos of nothing Spooner injected to the matter of his choice footwear. My friend didn’t get it. What was the big deal with the shoes? I answered in kind:

“Spooner just likes Converse,” I said frankly, “and it’s also product placement.”

This satisfied him, but not the whole deal with screen time dedicated to foot fashion when there was possibly a killer robot on the loose. This is where I return to the SF paradox again. Such glitches are rife within big ticket SF, even famous and popular franchises. How does Darth Vader go from gunning for Luke in the first movie to then recruiting him in the second? How was ET able to heal Elliot with a touch but unable to heal himself? Why was it that in the original Terminator Reese explained no inorganic matter could pass through the time machine but in TV’s The Sarah Connor Chronicles a severed, metal skull of a destroyed Terminator bounced into the past? Ripley bails on her crewmates to rescue a friggin’ cat? And what was up with Data using contractions in the first season of Star Trek: TNG?

(Hey, trivia time. The whole Alien cat thing? It was director Scott’s nod to old timey nautical superstition, not to mention serving as sort of a retrograde dues ex machina. Back in the day, when a ye olden wooden ship was going down, it was considered very unlucky to leave the ship’s cat behind lest there’d be no rescue. Cats were kept onboard to keep stowaway rats that would chew on both rations and rigging  at bay, thereby being unsung, essential members of the crew. No pocky for kitty. You heard it here. Anyway…)

Yeah, yeah. I know. Splitting hairs. But hardcore SF movie/TV fans notice such stickiness (as much as Game Of Thrones and The Walking Dead freaks do), and it often causes a mild form of cognitive dissonance. It’s enough to have the dedicated viewer chuck the remote through the screen. Such paradoxes are commonly defined as betraying interior logic.

Let’s face it; the worlds of SF make up their own rules in order to advance the story. The rules must make sense, be relevant to and obeyed within the plot at all times. Sure, we know Han Solo and Greedo aren’t real, and neither are their blasters, but when Lucas f*cked around with the editing it put Star Wars geeks into a foaming uproar. The scene either upset or codified Han Solo as a soulless merc or just a guy trying to keep on keeping on.

Okay, maybe that’s not the best example. But here, consider this scenario instead: when Ripley finally bests the xenomorph in Alien 3 by somehow using the laws of physics (which are serious business in SF) in reverse? Possible spoiler, but doesn’t hot metal usually contract rather than expand when introduced to freezing cold water? Flubs like that makes the needle skitter over the average SF fan’s Philip Glass record. I heard such a thing once, which is now why I’m sterile. But later such evil exams result in 8-Track collection of Cluster to turn into Vaseline.

(And I hear them bootstraps being pulled up by hands still clutching cans of PBR.)

Anyway, I, Robot defies interior logic a lot, especially since the thing can’t seem to make up its mind if it’s a cop caper, a meditation on existence, a sci-fi parable or a Matrix disillusion. The movie defies interior logic due to the simple fact of its schizoid nature; the plot’s convoluted and crams too much story (all nine and next to none of Asimov’s opus) into its theatrical running time. I, Robot probably could’ve gone on for over four hours. Be glad it barely broke two.

The average movie freak—the guys like me who crave these things: beer, a good seat, surround sound and a patient date who would put up with the nerdy film geek sh*t quacking openly about this and that on screen—would appreciate this. Here: One of the biggest strengths of Robot is its visuals. Yeah, I know; if this is a sci-fi flick, it had better look interesting with lots of techno splash and dash. Well not this time. I’ve always preferred my SF to not be so fantastic more than plausible. Future Chicago here looks like how it could possibly be 20 years from now. The cars, the trains, the architecture, all of it looks plausible, and not gaudy or stylized like in some anime movie (think Akira). Chicago 2035 looks like any metropolis, only with slightly more advanced tech, different fashions and an altered skyline. That and there are f*cking robots marching everywhere.

You could see yourself there, and since the city is on the whole pretty mundane populated with average people, it should come as no real surprise that our hero Spooner is (at first glance) your Average Joe cop. In fact, Smith’s character is your stereotypical cop who prefers to play by his own rules. I guess even in the future some things never change, which is a shame. Sure, Spooner has a somewhat interesting backstory, and we want to know what his issue with robots is, but something’s off the mark.

It’s Smith’s acting. He’s very stiff. Big Willie’s charm is still there, though, but subdued and mired with much sarcasm. Over the course of the film, it becomes painfully apparent that Will is rather bored with his character. The zippiness he’s shown in his other SF movies (the Men In Black series, I Am Legend and Independence Day) is all but absent here. I’m not sure if this was done on purpose or for the sake of plot, like trying to add some gravitas to his role or something. In any event, audiences know Smith as charming. His charm and humor come naturally, even in “serious” roles like Six Degrees Of Separation, Seven Pounds and The Pursuit Of Happiness. By the by, I’m not counting his performance as the titular character in Ali. We all know the great heavyweight was an even mix of personality, humor and charm. Not much of a stretch for Smith there. If you’re curious, a good example of a charmless Smith? After Robot, watch After Earth. The film was okay. Willie was not. And his rigidity don’t work here to good neither.

That’s the big problem with Robot. It’s not just Spooner is a stereotype. Everyone in the movie is a cut-and-paste, fill-in-the-blank, connect-the-dots nonentity. We have the grizzled cop with issues. We have Moynahan’s brilliant but underappreciated scientist (perhaps cuz she’s a girlie. So much for sexual equality in the future) who has all the answers. We have Smith’s Riggs to McBride’s Murtaugh as the higher up, scolding Spooner for being paranoid and lackadaisical. We have Bruce Greenwood’s slimy, overreaching executive now in charge of a billion dollar company and all the bells and whistles that go along with that. We have our Mr. Bodie, Dr. Lanning, the revered super genius scientist/Dr. Frankenstein. We have our cast of nobodies, and an audience really can’t rally around a cast that’s so flat and hollow to summon any real emotional attachment.

Save one: Sonny.

This is forced credit—perhaps with forced irony—but at the end of the day, Tudyk’s performance as the robot perpetrator seems the most human and fully formed. That is to say, at least without pretense. Sonny’s honest demeanor and childlike emotions are the only thing we can hang on to in Robot. He’s the most interesting character (the only one, actually), and let’s face it, the movie’s whole raison d’être. Robot’s world is comprised of a lot of trite dialogue, half-baked ideas and a needlessly rushed and convoluted plot, but we got this cool robot here conveying more emotion and compelling motivations than the rest of the flesh and blood cast, or at least those not rendered via CGI. But an Xmas tree with only one branch makes for a lousy place to hang all those ornaments. Ho ho ho.

There were a lot of technical red flags with Robot, too, and I ain’t just talking robo-jargon. Remember what I said about science fiction having to obey its interior logic? Well, I’m not one hundred percent sure if this applies to Robot’s byzantine meditation on life and freewill.

The following could be construed as a spoiler, but it doesn’t really give away any significant plot points or twists or whatever. Robot is technically a murder mystery disguised as a sci-fi tale, and the whole motive behind Sonny’s alleged murder is wrapped up in his programming. I’ll keep it short: robots cannot kill, but Sonny is a new model, programmed to think and emote like a human. He is accused of killing his creator and gets very emotional about it, claiming his innocence. His newer programming allows him a sense of freewill, and therefore capable of acting on his emotions. But he is still a robot, and his basic programming still applies. These points are hammered on throughout the movie. So Sonny is capable of killing, understands the nature of it, quite capable, has motive (albeit not his own, or maybe it was. The plot vacillates between these points as it is convenient to the hair-brained scheme of things) but stills asserts his basic code. Then gets perilously close to breaking it. In sum, if these laws are immutable to all robots, then how can Sonny seem to willfully defy them when it suits the situation?

Headache yet? I sure as sh*t got one.

The whole wad above is an insidious yet glaring technical issue—one of many regarding Robot’s execution—that makes the movie hop the tracks. Robot is trying very hard to be an SF movie, but any keen eye can see that this is merely a shiny, shiny murder mystery/action/thriller. Asimov’s concepts are barely touched upon; save the three robot laws, nothing else was adapted into the script, which ultimately sucked all the smart from Asimov’s stories that made his whole series so compelling in the first place. Even the end credits cite Asimov’s work being merely “suggested” as the basis for the movie. Would’ve Robot been better if the root stories were more closely adhered to? Probably not, considering all its other flaws besides a weak script.

Again with the pacing. It’s stuttering, like trying to start your car on a winter’s morning. Stop, go, crank, repeat, ignition, fart. Robot plays out like a CD with a scratch in it; just when things feel smooth sailing, there comes a hiccup in the story. Examples include the many, many, many times Sonny swoops in and out of character, or the heavy duty big science/philosophical exposition Del and Laura get into as if to explain the SF minutiae to the confused audience (perhaps who are fans of and understand how SF works). You gotta find a groove telling a story with film. If you keep mucking with the mixture, regardless of the genre, all you’re doing is cementing an audience’s suspicion: the story is weak, and the director is merely slapping mortar onto the crumbling dam.

Speaking of directing, Robot is sorely lacking in a signature facet of director Proyas. I think some of it injected into the movie would’ve made it more compelling. Robot needs a healthy dose of Alex Proyas’ weirdness. Compared to The Crow and Dark City, Robot cannot compare. This is Proyas’ first “straight” film, and it shows. It’s a failed blockbuster. Betting on Proyas’ cachet as a director of psychological fantasy, I’ll be willing to wager that the studio heads figured they found their SF Wes Anderson. I’ll also bet they hedged their bets and stripped out the overtly “weird” elements of Asimov’s story lines, tempered Proyas’ verve, dropped a whole boatload of cash into a derivative movie with cool CGI, Will Smith and that funny Aussie-Egyptian director of that comic book flick about Bruce Lee’s dead son as a dead rock star at the helm minus the sharpness of a science fiction story and hope the sloppy general public will come in droves. Will Smith!

Uh, no. Proyas’ talent with weird was wasted (or at most heavily diluted) on Robot. Watching it I could feel that any action director could’ve fit the bill. We landed in John McTiernan territory here, and our movie demanded some strangeness to lighten the mass media load with its not so subtle commentary on tech consumer bread and circuses. No, Robot needed some spice that only Proyas with hands untied could provide.

Still, for all its clumsy flaws, Robot had a handful of notable bright spots. Like I said, the visuals were interesting, albeit not necessarily compelling. But when used right, they worked. For instance, the insect/hive mind of the robots made for some cool choreography (although the Matrix-esque action camera work got a tad disorienting sometimes, but still in a good way). There’s something rightfully unsettling about swarms of malicious robots crawling across the cityscape, with humans cowering in their wake. This paired with keen use of lighting goes quite far in heightening visual tension. As if in reflection of the bland human cast, Sonny and his kind did their best to keep the audience engaged in the drawn-out, often frustratingly protean storyline by actually showing “honest” emotion. A gold star to Tudyk, who in my opinion was the real star and walked away with the movie, such as it was.

Ah, me. Yep, science fiction can be pretty heady. Seems the best SF films often are about, or at least hint at “big concepts.” The paradox of making a good SF film, or even a mediocre one like Robot is in figuring out how to keep that essential interior logic in check, maintaining a modicum of “smart” and inject just enough vitality and action to keep the heady sh*t bounding along without fear of pitfalls. Want to have that cake to eat.

2001 had it. The original Terminator had it. I, Robot? Not so much. What’s worse is that it wasn’t even a true science fiction movie. It was a police procedural, and a rather stock one at that.

By the way, the blogger wishes to acknowledge the influence of Harlan Ellison on this week’s installment. Just in case.

*again, wink*


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. I, Robot was nothing more than a high concept episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. And not a very good one either. Plus, steer clear of The Crow: City Of Angels. Proyas sure did.


Stray Observations…

  • Nice touch with Stevie Wonder there, if a bit on the nose.
  • “Better be the last nothing.”
  • Technically speaking, Sonny and Co. aren’t robots; they’re androids. Androids are robots designed to look like people. Robots are designed to look like they could weld a Cadillac’s chassis together.
  • “Nice shoes.” Cute metaphor.
  • What the hell’s a “Café Ovaltine?” They give you a decoder pin with your latte?
  • “Do you ever have a normal day?”
  • “Ghost in the machine” is courtesy of Jung, not Asimov. And definitely not Dr Lanning.
  • “I’ll see my own doctor.”
  • Del’s robo-prejudice pans out as a tad weak. From the get go we’d’ve figured there’d be a bigger back story than REDACTED (that’s f*cking better than the usual pussy “spoiler alert.” Think I’m gonna use that from now on).
  • “That one’s me.”

Next Installment…

Charlize Theron is a frustrated writer of Young Adult novels, and lately her own story is an example of life imitating art. And we ain’t talkin’ no Sweet Valley High here neither.


 

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