Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Aug 28, 2004 4:36 pm 
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Mechanical rehash

Star Will Smith (who’s yet to be in anything better than Six Degrees of Separation and Ali) and director Alex Proyas (why can't he return to the sublime gothic schlock of The Crow and Dark City?) both deserve better than I, Robot. This movie may provide you with a little bit of fun but nothing can hide the fact that it’s poor genre stuff with slightly upgraded software. And movies are not computers, and we’re not robots, though the industry likes to think that. Blade Runner does the trash-futuristic city thing infinitely better (and is not alone in doing so); 2001: A Space Odyssey (not to be mentioned in the same sentence) does the existential angst of artificial intelligence more cosmically and A.I. does the machine’s longing to be human more painfully and humanly. This movie has only a few ideas, watered down from Isaac Asimov, and it tends to belabor them and dumb them down (Akiva Goldman is to thank, or curse, for the final script).

First let us begin with the very emphatic product placements: Converse All Stars, to which a whole scene is devoted, and Audi automobiles. If you’re going to chase a running robot through crowded streets, you’ll need those All Stars. If you’re chased by a gang of mad cybertrons driving huge trucks armed with robotic fork lifts, you’ll want to be behind the controls of an Audi – which cop hero Del Spooner (Smith) drives in a number of demolition derby sequences, one of which almost makes his cyber-prosthetic left arm fall off. Why do the stars of these future flicks wear leather jackets? Maybe those are product placements too. So is FedEx, now delivered by annoyingly obsequious mechanical men. And there’s a little plug for adopting stray kittens, which shows Spooner’s softer side.

Will Smith isn’t a robot and the contrast of his awesomely pec-ed tawny torso with the spindly silver ant-like bodies of the robots, which are blue-eyed to boot, is all too obvious. The pecs are repeatedly shown off in bedroom moments, and then strongly hinted at by the loose pullover Will wears for all other scenes. He seems to have gotten in character, as Hollywood stars often do nowadays, by going to the gym. There’s a dame, an uptight, almost robotic robot shrink, Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) who gets loosened up by her need to bond with Will after the ritual initial sparring.

The movie observes one rather special and arbitrary rule that viewers of A.I. can’t but think odd: all robots look alike. I guess that makes the digital effects cheaper and our sense that the mechanical creatures are an enemy army clearer. Their stick-figure look is pretty boring though, after the riot of robot generations and looks in A.I. The people of Chicago, where this is supposed to take place, are faceless too. There’s a cocky teenage boy who Spoon knows, and Spoon’s granny (Adrian Ricard) who bakes him pies. The unkindest cut is that a robot can learn to make them just as tasty. Spoon doesn't have the complication of a wife or girlfriend to deal with any more -- that's a story the movie doesn't get into.

Then there’s the genius robot inventor Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), whose apparent suicide Spoon is sent to investigate. Since the inventor is huge – the company he started is about to put out a robot for every five humans in the country (not the world; in fact we don’t see beyond Chicago) and he’s scion of a great company, and since Spoon is a bit of a wild card, it’s odd he’d be sent to investigate – but then, he’s Will Smith. Will is a sort of middle class, ghetto dressed dominant male in this. Not much of a stretch. And he has a human directness and secure sense of himself that makes him shine compared to irritating, self satisfied company CEO Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood, who’s thin, always a bad sign—Spoon’s friendly cliché police boss – Chi McBride -- is fat) and the lady shrink (who’s got a tight, mannish hairdo; but never fear – she lets the hair down later and becomes a real woman). And then there’s Sunny (voiced by Alan Tudyk), who’s sort of R2D2 with (metaphorical) balls and a longing to lead.

Spoon meets the CEO and dislikes him, because while the scientist was a pal, this snake heads a company whose slogan, Spoon thinks, should be “we shit on the little guy.” The robot explosion is represented as a megabucks capitalist enterprise to displace workers and sell hardware, which is tied in with their being treated as a slave class.

That’s one of the movie’s Asimov-lite ideas. The others concern the nature of the robots. “The Three Rules” (of Robotics) are the essence of robot programming as benign servants of mankind: they're hardwired to be incapable of doing anything harmful to their masters. Spoon– get this – distrusts robots because one of them saved his life. See the movie to find out how that works. An opening sequence – the movie starts to creak when you look at how it’s put together – shows how quick Spoon is to assume robots are up to no good. Which of course is justified, and he’s the only one to know this, and so it must be or there’d be no plot and no superhero. It all leads to the Spoon punch line to the lady shrink, “Somehow ‘I told you so’ just doesn’t quite do it.”

The movie has a few moments, such as when Sonny gets interrogated by Spoon to see what’s wrong with his program, and a few of the street scenes where robots blend in with people. The big trouble with I, Robot, other than its simplistic, not to say dumb, script, is as so often happens nowadays in Hollywood that the ideas and the characters get overwhelmed by the special effects, in this case the armies of digitalized robots, who give Will Smith an opportunity to be an action star (in a void, I guess) but quickly infantilize the proceedings.

I'm not sure if Spoon's motorcycle is a product placement or not, since few people would recognize the custom job that it is, and anyway there are only a few of them available. Maybe Will Smith, who crashed one at 60 m.p.h shooting the movie, also got to keep one as part of his paycheck. Makes you want to be a star.

Very wanly recommended, though as one critic has written, if you go, the sequel will be your fault. Maybe better just to go out and buy an Audi, or, if that costs too much, a pair of Converse All Stars.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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