Friday, February 8, 2013

Film Friday: I, Robot (2004)

I was pretty psyched when I heard that I, Robot was coming to the big screen. It was (very, very loosely) based on an iconic book. It starred Will Smith, an actor I like a good deal. It was directed by Alex Proyas, the fantastic director who gave us the incredible Dark City. What could go wrong? Uh, yeah. Was I ever disappointed when the film hit theaters. In hindsight, however, I’ve come to like this film as just mindless fun.

** spoiler alert **
The Plot
The year is 2035 and anthropomorphic robots are everywhere. They do all the dangerous and dirty jobs humanity won’t. Everyone except the really poor have robot servants. But robots are faster, stronger and smarter than humans, and if they were so inclined, they could take over in a heartbeat. Fortunately, robots can’t do that because they’re programmed with three laws which require them to protect human beings and to follow the orders of human beings, except when those orders would involve hurting another person. So everything is fine.
But all of that changes when Detective Del Spooner (Will Smith) is called in to investigate the apparent suicide of Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell). Cromwell is the founder of US Robotics and is, basically, the inventor of the robot. Spooner soon suspects that a robot killed Lanning, but no one believes him because everyone assumes robots can’t hurt people because of the three laws. They dismiss Spooner’s claims because he’s the one guy on the planet who doesn’t like robots because of an incident when he was younger. So they write this off as paranoia. Nevertheless, Spooner continues and soon he uncovers a plot by robots to take over the planet.
The Good And The Bad
When I first saw this film, I was disappointed. By and large, it’s nothing more than a generic action film using robots instead of aliens or hired thugs. The thing is awash in product placements too. Moreover, for a science fiction film, the plot lacks depth.
The story is about robots trying to take over the world. The robots aren’t actually malicious, they’ve just misinterpreted their orders. Basically, like liberals, they think that humans are self-destructive and they want to save us from ourselves. And the best way to do that would be to enslave us and then take care of us.

That actually opens the door to several ideas. For example, you could use the robots as an metaphor for liberals and point out that saving us from ourselves is a bad thing. . . “Welcome to Obama-Clinton 2035!” But the film never really shows why people would be unhappy or why the human spirit would die in such conditions. Alternatively, you could point out how we are already dependent on machines, and how that’s getting worse, and you could ask what would happen if we suddenly found ourselves without our machines. But the film doesn’t do that either. To the contrary, it makes no real references to the present. Instead, the film just sticks with the top line idea of “what if we had robots everywhere and they took over!” That’s not particularly satisfying.
The film also seems to rely on a premise that is, at best, naive. Everyone except for Will Smith seems to genuinely believe that robots somehow could never harm a human being. Indeed, we are told constantly, that they are all programmed with these three laws which prevent it. And it comes as a total shock to the humans when they discover that someone found a way around this. Give me a break. Are we really to believe there no hackers who could reprogram a robot? That their software never goes wrong... blue screen of murderous death? That China isn’t turning out knock-off robots with 2.5 laws? Or that some evil company isn’t selling robots without the laws or an after-market kit to remove them? This is just not credible. Heck, US Robotics itself is said to have military contracts, do robot soldiers follow the three laws as well or did everyone somehow just forget about those whenever they think about how robots could never harm us?

And once again, it is the flaw of the shortcut that exposes the problem with the rest of the movie. If the writers have not used this bit of fakery as a shortcut to explaining why people would be surprised by robots, they might have had to deal with the question of the missing point to the film. In other words, if they hadn’t use this crutch about making everyone hopelessly naive, then they would have needed to explain why people would willing allow their potential murders into their lives. That would have raised all the issues that get ignored in this film about human laziness and dependence.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this and I think it’s starting to highlight a very valid point – when you gloss over something in writing your story, you often end up cutting out the need to discuss the things that make the movie interesting. Short cuts make for uninteresting stories.
Now, despite what I’ve said above, I have to admit that I’ve really come to enjoy this film. Will Smith is his usual self. He’s charismatic, funny and very likable. He’s someone you definitely want to know. The story is well paced and doesn’t reveal its plot points too quickly. There are a couple interesting mysteries that help drive the plot – who killed Dr. Lanning, who made Sonny, why is he different, did Sonny kill Dr. Lanning, who is behind the robot conspiracy? The film uses smart foreshadowing too, where the director actually waits to let things pay off later in the film, which always makes a story feel smarter, e.g. Sonny blinking. There are some insightful moments too, like when we’re told the internet destroyed the libraries and a very brief statement (far too undeveloped) about machinery destroying jobs. That’s enough to like the film if you weren’t expecting more.

Ultimately, this film is fun and I like it, I’m just disappointed that the film wasn’t any more than it was.


Anthony said...

I wasn't familiar with the story I, Robot was based on, but I was expecting better from Proyas (Dark City is one of the best sci-fi movies out there). Instead I, Robot was just a standard Will Smith vehicle.

Its kind of odd how I, Robot and Catwoman had the same lame, predictable from 50 miles away plot twist. I wonder if they shared a screenwriter.

Anonymous said...

^Anthony - I just checked. They don't share the same screenwriters.

Andrew -

I barely remember this film except for, ironically, the product placement. This movie is a great example of taking a great concept rife with possibilities and just dumbing it down completely.

Harlan Ellison actually wrote a script for a possible I, Robot film in the 70s which was obviously never made. It was eventually published in book form.

And for some bizarre reason, Fox converted it to 3D a couple years ago. I can't help but feel that money could've been spent on other things. :-)

Tennessee Jed said...

I bought a copy of Dark City, and fell asleep while viewing it. That is not a knock on the film or director. Rather, it is a glimpse of what you all can look forward to when you reach geezerdom. A darkened theater, a recliner, a dimly lit film, and an old man with an e-trade account.....;)

I do plan to see that film, and must say I actually do view the films you recommend, rarely finding one I don't enjoy. That said, since S.F. is not my favorite genre, particularly those that are dark and/or dystopic, I suppose my tolerance for anything less than "best in class" is a little less for this genre. I did love Blade Runner, of course. All of which is a way of saying, I don't feel a great desire to go out of my way to catch I Robot, but at least will try and keep an open mind if "game happens to come to me."

I'll admit recently to finding some of the HD restorations of films such as The Shining and some vintage westerns to be so good, that I am into appreciating some of them in a whole new way.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, I think that's right, this film ultimately turned into nothing more than a vehicle for Will Smith.

I was disappointed too, given that Proyas has generally done such smart films otherwise. This was a real let down.

But over time, I've come to enjoy it just as mindless fun.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That's exactly what this is -- a great idea dumbed down. Despite all the cool ideas that film should or could be touching upon, you just end up with a very mindless story about robots taking over and everyone being too stupid to see it except for the hero.

This has been my beef with science fiction for some time now -- so much of what gets released as science fiction these days is nothing more than something shiny. There's no brain to science fiction anymore, and it wouldn't even take a lot to give it a brain.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I'm a fan of science fiction, but right now, the genre seems to be falling apart in pretty mediocrity. Most of what comes out is little more than action films involving robots or aliens rather than anything that could challenge for best in class. It's kind of sad.

And yes, if you miss this film, you aren't really missing anything unless you like Will Smith.

AndrewPrice said...

As an aside, it seems that every week now we have Star Wars news. Apparently, they are now planning two new films -- a Boba Fett spin off and a "young Han Solo" spin off.

Anonymous said...

I hadn't read the source material so I went in blind and I ended up liking this movie as a Will Smith action movie with a SF theme.

Taking it at that level I found it good mindless fun, but yes with a bit more effort it could have been more. I'd like to think that Proyas was handcuffed into keeping the themes simple by the studio.


rlaWTX said...

I was rather livid when this movie came out - I love the Asmiov robot books, and this was just soooooo not that story. But I have seen it since, and have decided to do what I do for Tom Clancy movies (except Red October): it's a totally different story that just happens to have similar names as the book I like. That thought helps me enjoy this movie for its entertainment value instead of seething :).

As an aside, from what I remember, Asimov's books deal with the "hacker" concept - and I don't remember US Robotics having military 'bots. The ongoing relationship between Daneel and Elijah is pretty interesting... and then how that ties into the Foundation books... I wanted to be a psychohistorian (sp).

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, This is one of the first that Proyas only directed and didn't write or produce, so I think that explains what happened regarding him. My guess is that the study treated him as a "hot director" for hire and told him "this is the script." And if you're given a chance to make $300 million in profits, you kind of don't put up too much of a fuss if they tell you what script to shoot.

As I said, I enjoyed the film, but I wish it had been more.

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, I do the same thing. This isn't "I, Robot," it's just some other film about robots that uses that title for some reason. :)

And like you, when I first saw this, I was really disappointed. I expected so much more than this film was. But after I got over that and I realized this film wasn't really "I, Robot," then I was able to enjoy it as a Will Smith action film and I liked it a lot more.

I don't remember any mention of military in the books, but there are two mentions of military contracts in the film -- as a reason not to delay the release of the robots because it would scare people and could endanger their military contracts, and when Will Smith mentions the military helping to save everyone and he's told that US Robotics gave the same robots to the military.

I'm leery of the upcoming Foundation films, but we'll see. :)

LL said...

It incorporated the Asimov's three laws, and that's about as far as it went. But I liked the film.

Maybe I liked it because my heart holds a secret flame for Bridget Moynahan. If she'd been on screen reading the ingredients from a cereal box, it would have held my attention. But, I'm shallow like that.

I didn't know that there were Foundation films in the offing. I'll have to check that out.

AndrewPrice said...

LL, That is about as far as it got with the books, the rest went off in a very different direction.

I enjoy the film now because it's a fun film. I like Smith. He's charismatic and has some good lines. The story is ok. I like Moynahan a lot as well. It's not a bad film, it just wasn't at all what I hoped it would be.

Apparently Roland Emmerich is doing the Foundation films, which is a bad sign. And word is that they are leaning toward making them 3D which spells even more trouble. LINK

tryanmax said...

I never had high expectations for I, Robot as a film b/c, while the book is a classic, it is also a great example of hard science fiction--not particularly conducive to a big-screen adaptation. With that said, I think a good job was done in incorporating Asimov's Three Laws and, you're right, as a mindless action film, it is quite enjoyable and re-watchable.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I think it would take a very talented screen writer to make the hard science fiction stuff into an effective movie. You almost need to move the books into the background as a setting against some new made up story rather than trying to tell the book.

It can be done, but it would be difficult.

LL said...

Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation will end up the way that Dune did - except that it's likely a one film project. There are a lot of crap SciFi films and it's due to the fact that the writers, producers and directors either want to make them "slasher movies" or "action films" without any attention to the plot. The exception to that was the Alien Franchise and Promethius that seemed to bounce between monster/slasher, action and interesting.

AndrewPrice said...

Sadly, I agree. Though I do kind of like Dune.

For whatever reason, movie screenwriters don't seem to have the mindset to handle science fiction. They try to re-define it as action films or horror films, and they treat the science fiction aspects as decoration.

I suspect HBO could do a great job with science fiction if they wanted to -- they have some great writers doing dramas at the moment. But I'm not sure Hollywood (film or television) believes there's a market for it.

El Gordo said...

"Will Smith is his usual self. He’s charismatic, funny and very likable."

Does he take his shirt off? I believe it´s in his contract. There always seems to be a scene where he takes his shirt off and does pull-ups.

Not that I´d usually notice such a thing. Female company tends to notice, however, and then I notice them noticing and end up thinking that I haven´t done any pull ups this side of the millennium.

AndrewPrice said...

What's a pull-up? Just kidding.

Yeah, he always takes his shirt off and, like you, I notice that any women in the audience seem to be keenly interested in that scene. It must be magic. LOL!

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

AMC announced what sounded like an awesome sci-fi series a couple years ago, sort of like a TV version of Contact about a female astronomer who works for JPL. It was created by a guy named John Shiban who had worked on X-Files and Star Trek: Enterprise. I was very excited about it, as was my fellow NASA test subject I still keep in touch with...

...and then AMC passed on it. Bummer.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I haven't heard of that one. I did watch most of the first season of whatever that thing was on TNT that was supposed to be the next big thing by Spielberg and some people. It turned out to be really lame, derivative, pointless garbage.

Anonymous said...

Well, now that the show is over, I think it's time for you to get into Fringe, if you hadn't already. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

I didn't because I rarely venture the networks on principle. Plus, I've been so swamped the last couple years that I haven't taken on any new series.

T-Rav said...

Argh, the Internet service provider ate my comment from this morning. Oh well.

I think Falling Skies is what you're referring to. I caught an episode or two when it started; it was pretty forgettable.

Fringe, on the other hand, you should definitely watch. And yes, Scott, I promise I will revise my earlier review in the near future.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, Is that like the dog ate my homework? :)

I'll check out Fringe at some point.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

You made an interesting observation above about Proyas being a hired hand on this film. It's interesting...

...very few directors get to run their own empires (think Spielberg, Cameron, Jackson, etc.). Most simply go from one project to another. Some of those directors have no discernible style (I'm not saying that's a bad thing) while others manage to make the material their own whether they originated it or not.

Just food for thought. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I would say the world consists of the BIG names who can do whatever they want (Spielberg, Lucas, Kubrick, Cameron, Scott, Tarantino). Then you have a group who have their own styles no matter what they do, and they eventually become big names -- but niche names (Burton, Nolan). Then you have a group who are basically work for hire, but who bring their own styles (Hyams). Then you have this army of directors who basically do what they are told in the most generic way possible.

That's how I would group it.

Mycroft said...

The biggest problem with I,Robot is that the plot owes more to Jack Williamson's Humanoid series than Isaac Asimov.

AndrewPrice said...

Mycroft, I haven't read that, so I'll have to take your word for it. I suspect, however, the plot owes more to the Hollywood Xerox machine than to any particular book.

Commander Max said...

This was one I enjoyed quite a bit. Everything worked well in the context of the film. Unlike most of today's films it's story was solid. There wasn't any let's put this here because it looks cool sort of crap. Or, hey, we have to relate to...
There was something else about this film I really enjoyed. It's old style sci-fi quality, a little creepy and a bit uncomfortable. Not unlike a number of films from the 60's-early 70's. Like Westworld, everything is peachy until things go wrong.

I have to say the concept is a little tired. The machines are going to make us safe? How many times has that been used? It does show the lib mindset, they want to protect us. So lets take away everything potentially harmful, and enslave the populous. Government is the best entity to do that. You can tell who hasn't spent much time in reality.

Patriot said...

Andrew...Contrast I-Robot with Bicentennial Man. Robin Williams did a pretty good job of portraying a robot who becomes sentient, and more human, over time.

I would much rather imagine our robot future like that as depicted in BC-Man (minus the PC leftist one-world government) than in the dark I-Robot world. Even though, the I-Robot future is the much more likely outcome for us than the peace and love BC-Man world. Definitely different than our brave, new Bladerunner world huh?! Interesting how we have presented robots over the years in film isn't it? "What the mind of man can conceive, the mind of man can achieve."

And I do like the fact that in the I-Robot world the robots do all the manual labor scut work.

Mycroft said...

Jack Williamson's Humanoids are created with the objective to "To Serve and Obey, And Guard Men from Harm". Taken literally, they enslave the human race and become the ultimate nanny.
I've only seen I,Robot one time, but have to disagree with Commander Max's statement "There wasn't any let's put this here because it looks cool sort of crap."
The entire Will Smith/Robot fight scene on rotating cars traveling at high speed through a tunnel was one long ridiculous green screen experience.

AndrewPrice said...

Max, I agree. I'm disappointed that the film wasn't more, but as films go, this one was enjoyable. It's "solid." Everything in it works and it provides decent entertainment. I do wish there was more to it, but that's not necessary from every film. As pure entertainment, this one was quite good.

AndrewPrice said...

Patriot, Robots are slowly taking over all the manual labor in our world already -- they just don't look human shaped. Indeed, technology is the biggest reason for unemployment. That's a theme that I think would have been interesting to deal with in this film. They mention it a couple times ("US sh*tting on the little guy"), but they never really go into it.

BC-Man did offer an interesting take on robot. I think robots offer a lot of potential on film, it's just that too often they are just there to be shot en mass.

Commander Max said...

Mycroft, are you sure you understood my post? I run into this a lot.

I said everything worked well in the context of the film. My point is that scene along with the demo of the house and Wil running through it. Were both excessive and way over the top. But they fit into the context(storyline) of the film. They were justifiable, not made just to look cool then lets put them wherever.

Besides if the computer wanted to bump Wil off, that would be too easy in the same context of the film. But then it would a very dull and short film. A car running at over 100MPH it would be real easy to kill a human at that speed. Ex. disable airbag + sudden stop = dead Wil. When the car was in a spin, Wil would have passed right out, then crush the car. Or Wil running through house, computer is tracking Wil, smash the part of house he will be in a few seconds ahead of him.

Reality is these are movies pure fantasy. Which is very hard to make it work as a complete composition. I, Robot does, something most modern films haven't achieved.

AndrewPrice said...

Mycroft, I haven't read this, but that does seem to be the plot here.

I don't have a problem with the car-chase fight. I think it does set some things up for the future and it's got an interesting build up. I also like how the robots keep saying, "You are have experiencing a car accident" which is absolutely something a robot would say.

AndrewPrice said...

Max, I agree, these things were over the top, but I don't think they were that far over the top either. These scenes weren't forty minutes long and for the most part they didn't involve stunts that seemed to totally defy the laws of physics.

The car scene was also believable because they set it up well. For example, they showed him driving manually before that happened, so we knew he could handle high speeds. You knew about his robot arm, so we knew he could do things normal humans couldn't. They circled the car with the trucks so there were no obstacles that you would assume he would hit. And the robots were trying to make it look like an accident, so there were no questions about them just killing him.

I think all of that gives the scene a lot of credibility.

Commander Max said...

Yea, Andrew. This film didn't have any, "What the hell is that!" moments.

One element that I especially enjoyed was Shila La Buff(what's up with that name, like I care about how to spell it), looked like a total dork who couldn't curse. I know he is always a dork in films, in this one he was less annoying.

AndrewPrice said...

Max, Surprisingly, Shia didn't bother me here either. I think that's because he was treated as an annoyance and not as the focus of the film. Plus, I really did enjoy his line about the woman shooting with her eyes closed.

I agree that there are no "what the hell is that" moments in this film. There are a few indulgences, but nothing that screams that it was added out of the blue or that it makes no sense. Sadly, that's a victory in and of itself!

Adam said...

It was just another one of those films that perpetuated the stereotype that robots are going to take over the world. The automation is actually helping people and creating jobs as robots have human input behind their actions.

AndrewPrice said...

Adam, That's because robots don't have a lobby! :)

Robots of the world unite!

Unknown said...

This film works for me, because it respects the key principles of Asimov's fictional robot universe. In Asimov terms, it tells a story in which an artificial intelligence discovers the Zeroth Law (to protect humanity). In the Asimov universe, this leads to the whole psychohistory project, aimed at discovering how humanity can be protected. However, it also has ramifications for the development of robots in our more limited civilization: many attrocities have already been committed by man in the name of protecting/preserving/improving civilization, but that is a dangerous place to go.

AndrewPrice said...

John, I like this one as an action flick and a Will Smith vehicle. I think it's an entertaining film, but I don't see any real depth.

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