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Sonny Boy Blue

 

I, Robot

Alex Proyas, USA, 2004

Rating: 3.0

 

 

Posted: July 18, 2004

By Laurence Station

The Three Laws of Summer Movie Blockbusters:

1) A Summer Movie Blockbuster may not insult its audiences' intelligence or, through inaction, allow its audience to leave the theater unsatisfactorily entertained.
2) A Summer Movie Blockbuster must reflect the vision of its creators, except where such vision would conflict with the First Law.
3) A Summer Movie Blockbuster must protect its own bottom line, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Okay, so Summer Movie Blockbusters don't follow set rules of behavior. Quite often, in fact, such films do insult the intelligence of their audiences and fail to entertain the masses. I, Robot isn't exactly one of those movies: it does a fairly decent job of following the first rule outlined above, respecting its patrons while providing theatergoers a moderately entertaining two hours. Director Alex Proyas (The Crow, Dark City) brings to life a fairly taut, reasonably logical screenplay, without resorting to the excessively huge explosions or overwhelming special effects that so often shackle Summer Movie Blockbusters (SMBs).

Of course, tried-and-true formula does creep in -- hey, a substantial investment needs to be recouped, and I, Robot is definitely not catering to the art-house crowd. Thus, we have scenes like the one in which basically good but rebellious, robot-mistrusting cop Del Spooner (Will Smith) is forced to turn in his badge to his sympathetic but by-the-book Lieutenant (Chi McBride), or the impressive action sequence involving the demolition of an estate, in which Smith does his best Indiana Jones impression. There's also a spunky sidekick (Holes star Shia LaBeouf), who's so perfunctory he doesn't even do much in the way of actual sidekicking; he's just fulfilling his role on the SMB checklist. (Curiously, the obligatory romance between Spooner and "robopsychologist" Susan Calvin, played by Bridget Moynihan, generates very little heat.) On the whole, I, Robot deserves credit for avoiding many of the clichéd pitfalls that cripple similarly big-budgeted affairs.

No, where I, Robot falls short is in regards to the second law mentioned above. Given the inspirational source material (Isaac Asimov's classic robot stories -- though it only borrows the three laws and a few character names) and Proyas' weirdly original Dark City pedigree, the film never pushes the intellectual envelope as bravely as it could. I, Robot merely darts around the issues of what makes a human being human, and whether or not artificial creations can evolve over time. Whereas the stylish detective noir Blade Runner and the flawed but intriguing A.I.: Artificial Intelligence genuinely sought to understand the nature of freewill in non-human beings, I, Robot errs on the side of Westworld, leaving the deep thinking to futurists and M.I.T. doctoral candidates.

Westworld?, you're probably asking. The movie about the futuristic amusement park with the evil robots? Yes, that one. I, Robot follows Spooner as he investigates the suspicious suicide of chief robot scientist Dr. Alfred Lansing (James Cromwell) on the eve of the U.S. Robotics corporation's "largest robot distribution in history" (the year is 2035, and robots are about to replace the Internet as society's huge technological upheaval). Stonewalled by USR's head honcho, Spooner enlists the aid of Moynihan's Calvin, and the two eventually piece together that something may not be quite right with the company's brand-spanking-new robot crop. Turns out that one of these robots -- nicknamed Sonny by the late doctor (and voiced by Alan Tudyk) -- may have played a role in Lansing's demise, thus violating Robot Rule Numero Uno: Never harm humans. But there's far more to Sonny than meets the eye, and Spooner and Calvin must unravel the mystery before USR's next generation gets deployed on a worldwide scale.

I, Robot manages to keep a tight reign on its story, and the none-too-surprising ending follows logically with the initial setup. In the incredibly sensitive, almost introspective Sonny, we get a glimpse into the more profound issues the film teases but, sadly, never actually provokes. Even a scene or more nuanced explanation regarding the unique relationship between Sonny and his "father," Dr. Lansing, would have added deeper shading to the ultra clean, no-loose-ends-go-untied, plotline. Sonny wants to know its purpose, an intriguing notion that regrettably ends up as little more than a convenient plot device. Sonny proves too busy playing the role of action-star robot to delve too deeply into its artificial soul, and as a consequence, I, Robot ultimately suffers the same fate.

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