Thursday, 23 April 2009

Movie Review - I, Robot

I might have been disappointed had I watched this thinking I was going to watch something vaguely reminiscent of Isaac Asimov’s stories, but fortunately I wasn’t that naive. (Will Smith being the star was my first clue…) What we have here may only have been “suggested” by the great science fiction author, but it’s one of the best sci-fi movies in the last couple of years. (You could quibble that it’s not a true sci-fi movie, but I think it meets the criteria well enough.)

The only real Asimov connection is that the robots in this movie follow the three “laws of robotics” – basically : Law I / A robot may not harm a human or, by inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; Law II / A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law; Law III / A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law. Humankind has come to rely on the robots to the extent where a society without them seems impossible and unpalatable. Amongst this technology-trusting environment is one cop Del Spooner (Smith), who is completely paranoid about robots due to an experience in his past, and when an apparent suicide case (Dr Alfred Lanning – father of the modern robot design and played by James Cromwell [Star Trek: First Contact]) is passed to him, he gets even more suspicious – particularly about one particular robot called “Sonny” (Alan Tudyk – presumably using the same techniques as Gollum [Andy Serkis] in the Lord of the Rings trilogy). Naturally, since no crime of any kind has ever been committed by a robot in all history, his boss is reluctant to give him any leeway. As far as the “one cop against society etc” part of the plot goes, it’s very much as you’d expect. But the rest of the plot is often genuinely unpredictable, a very rare and valuable commodity these days. When robotics designer Susan Calvin gets involved with the case, she shows her absolute belief in the three laws by remaining unshakeable in her assertion that the robot that is apparently trying to kill them cannot possibly be going to harm them. Her relationship with him gets off to a rather bad start… and then gets worse. But she seems to be the only person he can turn to…

The plot weaves in and out at a furious pace, such that what I’ve told you above doesn’t constitute a spoiler, which it may have in other films. Smith puts in a good performance as the troubled cop, while as the heroine Bridget Moynahan was pretty good though a bit too wet at times. (Her tough career woman to damsel-in-distress transition was just a bit too quick to be properly believable.) I liked Chi McBride as Spooner’s boss (Lt. John Bergen) and Adrian Ricardas his granny, and Bruce Greenwood as the boss of US Robotics, the company about to launch a new range of robots when all the trouble begins to happen, puts in a decent performance. Unfortunately the scriptwriters (Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman [A Beautiful Mind]) felt the need to include an annoying youth, though he makes very infrequent appearances and the last one is pretty funny, so it’s not a huge problem. Director Alex Proyas does a great job of keeping the action going and maintaining the flow, and humour is interjected at the right points to ease the tension a little. (There’s not a huge amount of humour in the film, but most of it is genuinely is funny.

Of course the show-stealers are the robots themselves, beautifully rendered here. Particularly impressive was the way Sonny somehow looked human while the other robots didn’t – yet they looked basically identical. Very cleverly done. The explosion and vehicle effects were equally impressive, and the cityscapes show definite signs of being put together by a truly creative mind.

To my surprise the whole thing was very tightly plotted and, as I mentioned earlier, even packed a few surprises. Okay, there are a couple of things you could nit-pick about the plot, but not as many as the first Matrix film – and like that film, this moves quickly enough for you to not notice the slight inconsistencies that are there. Similarities to the Matrix films are apparent here, more than a passing resemblance to the first two Terminator films, and of course it will be likened to Bladerunner (to which there are similarities, though Bladerunner remains the definitive cyborg movie). However to me the most telling similarity is the (perhaps vague) parallel with Westworld (based on the book by Michael Crichton). In that film those running the android-inhabited theme parks realised that they couldn’t work out what was wrong with the robots, or how to fix them, because “the computers designed them – not humans” (to me, the most chilling part of the film – far worse than Yul Brynner!). There is a very similar scene in I, Robot, but I won’t tell you who’s involved in the scene in case it spoils things…

I have seen reviews that suggest I, Robot is on the same level of excellence as Bladerunner, but I wouldn’t agree. It’s certainly a good film and much better than I’d anticipated, but Bladerunner isn’t just a great film – it sets the standard for all other sci-fi films to follow. (It took me forever to select my Top Ten Sci-Fi Films, and it’s not by chance that Bladerunner is in joint top spot…) You won’t be disappointed with I, Robot, unless you’re a die-hard Asimov fan who feels that his name has been taken in vain.

My Favourite Quotes from the film

Lt. John Bergin : We're going to miss the good old days.
Detective Del Spooner : What good old days?
Lt. John Bergin : When people were killed by other people.

Susan Calvin : Do you ever have a normal day?
Detective Del Spooner : Yeah. Once. It was a Thursday.
Susan Calvin : Are you being funny?
Detective Del Spooner : I guess not.

Farber : Mother, DAMN, Spooner, she just shot at you with her eyes closed.
Detective Del Spooner : What the- did you just shoot at me with your eyes closed?
Susan Calvin : Well it worked, didn't it?


The next one is probably the best in the whole movie:

Detective Del Spooner : You are a clever imitation of life... Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot take a blank canvas and turn it into a masterpiece?
Sonny : Can you?

[It doesn't really come across in the written word... but the way it's done in the film is fantastic.]


Detective Del Spooner : I thought you were dead.
Sonny : Technically I was never alive, but thanks for your concern.

NS5 Robots : [Jumps on car and tries to steer car out of control] You are experiencing a car accident.
Detective Del Spooner : Like hell I am!

Susan Calvin : [about Spooner's motorcycle] This doesn't run on gas, does it? Gas explodes, you know!

Lt. John Bergin : [to Spooner] You're living proof that it is better to be lucky than smart.


And finally, yet another case of shameless corporate advertising:

FedEx NS4 Robot: Another on time delivery from FedEx!

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