Wednesday, July 21, 2004
Will Smith has grown into our nation's most proficient green-screen actor. It's a dubious achievement, perhaps, but a very marketable skill in these glory years of computer-enhanced moviemaking. If you have aliens or robots to fight, then call Will Smith. He seems comfortable with this acting distinction, if his serving as executive producer and star, of "I, Robot" is any proof.
Although "inspired" by Isaac Asimov's "I, Robot" story cycle, the movie only retains some of the philosophical precepts of Asimov's short stories rather than the narrative storylines. The retention has to do with Asimov's three laws of robotics, which decree that robots must do no harm to humans, obey all human orders, and protect the robot self when and if there is no conflict with the first two laws. It doesn't take a visionary futurist like Asimov to see the potential loopholes in these laws. Unfortunately, it takes leaden literalists like screenwriters Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman to turn a blockbuster concept into a wan actioner that will disappear from screens before the next nonhuman superstars are even spawned.
In the film Smith plays the robotophobic Chicago homicide detective Del Spooner in the year 2035. Robots have become part of quotidian life in this future, taking care of human drudge work like walking dogs, garbage collection, and FedEx deliveries. Yet Spooner is suspicious, much to the mocking delight of his acquaintances and lieutenant (Bridget McBride, in one more standard-issue role as a grumbly institutional overseer).
As the story begins, Spooner is called in to investigate the apparent suicide of one of the top researchers at U.S. Robotics (James Cromwell), the company that is supplying Americans with hordes of household robots. Spooner's investigation of the death leads him into contact with another company honcho, Dr. Susan Calvin (Moynahan, in a performance so stupor-inducing that she might be mistaken for one of the robots), and suspicion of a robot named Sonny (who was created in much the same fashion as Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, by having the actor Alan Tudyk perform the role of Sonny in a green unitard against a green screen so that the eventual character's facial movements seem quite realistic) as the culprit.
The dead scientist provides Spooner with holographic clues to the mystery—he even leaves a copy of "Hansel and Gretel" by the smashed window from which he fell to his death in order to hip Spooner to the fact that the clues were going to be doled out like breadcrumbs. (When we're not wondering about robot logic in this film, it's the humans' logic that baffles us.)
The script is also punched up with lots of Smith one-liners that seem more calculated to satisfy audience expectations than further the story. Smith and Moynahan also get equal time for gratuitous shower scenes, but hers is behind frosted glass while Will's is butt-naked. (Hint: If Will's tush is what you want to see, you'll get your wish in the first five minutes, although Smith's pumped-up post-"Ali" torso is on abundant display.)
Director Alex Proyas, who was so good at creating hermetic universes in "The Crow" and "Dark City," here fails to leave much stylistic stamp on "I, Robot." The future in his film looks more or less like it did in "Minority Report" and "A.I.," and "I, Robot"'s storyline about a robot revolution sounds an awful lot like "The Matrix." The action is fun without being too scary or flamboyant. But the film's accumulation of unnecessary complications, bad visual choices, one completely superfluous character (Shia LaBeouf), and tonally inappropriate quips makes us distractedly ponder the limits of human rather than artificial intelligence.