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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

I, Robot (review)

Robot Monster

There’s a running joke in I, Robot about so-and-so being the “dumbest smart person ever” and some other guy being the “dumbest dumb person ever.” This is ironic, because I, Robot may well be the dumbest movie-that-thinks-it’s-smart ever.
That bit of irony is unintended, but surely there’s something more deliberate behind the Irony! of Will Smith’s cop, Del Spooner, suffering from an irrational prejudice against the androids who’ve taken over all manner of menial work in the year 2035. Resenting the ‘bots is totally understandable, in the same way that it was totally understandable that the buggy-whip manufacturers and coachmen and stable-sweeper-outters resented the Model T for putting them out of business a hundred years ago. But it’s more than that for Spooner, who’s something of a bastard child of Lethal Weapon‘s Martin Riggs and The Terminator‘s Kyle Reese. Oh, sure, his daddy lost his job to a damn dirty robot, but Spooner just doesn’t trust the things. So when Spooner spots a robot running down a busy Chicago street carrying a lady’s handbag as the film opens, he “naturally” assumes that the robot has stolen the purse and is running guiltily from the scene of the crime. Why Spooner would “naturally” assume such a thing has no explanation at all beyond that nagging, irrational feeling he has about the machines, because no robot has never committed so much as a jaywalking offense. It’s comparable to you assuming that your toaster formulates the malicious intent to deliberately burn your toast every morning.

It’s supposed to get a laugh, this black-man-with-a-badge-and-a-gun finally getting to be irrationally suspicious of some-one/thing lower in the cultural scheme of things than he would have been, oh, 31 years earlier. It’s sweet revenge: If Spooner’s grandfather could get pulled over by a cop for driving while black, then Spooner can sure as hell attempt to arrest a souped-up toaster for running while robotic. And it does get a laugh, unless you think about the context — in which case it prompts a bewildered “WTF?!” instead, for it makes no damn sense at all.

Director Alex Proyas (Garage Days, Dark City) doesn’t want you think about context — in fact, he’d prefer it if you didn’t. Ditto screenwriters — I use the term loosely — Jeff Vintar (Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within) and Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind). They want you to “naturally” sympathize with Spooner, because no matter how little sense he makes, he will “naturally” turn out to be right about that nagging feeling… so “crazy” Spooner conveniently also serves to confirm the general unease much of the audience will have about technology, never mind that most of them will be toting cell phones with more computing power than the space shuttle or that enough computing cycles went into the film’s CGI to figure pi to a billion decimals. Hey, if funky-cool Smith (Bad Boys II, Men in Black II) thinks Science Has Gone Too Far, it must be true! Never let it be said that a shoot-’em-up summer flick might dare to challenge our preconceived notions.

No, it wouldn’t do to explore something science fictional that we haven’t really seen onscreen before… like the fact that an enormous segment of the population has been put out to pasture by the arrival of robots who collect the garbage and walk the dogs and deliver overnight packages and wait on tables in divey diners. The world of Chicago in 2035 doesn’t look all that different from the world we know today, except that the cars are a little rounder and the buildings are a little taller and everything’s a little shinier. Proyas and Co. don’t even bother to play with the tremendous possibilities inherent in our, the audience’s, assumption, along with Spooner, that that robot really had actually mugged some little old lady as a way to, you know, get us to reconsider, oh, how we might react differently to technology that has a face or how we’re willing to believe the worst about a situation, or just the human tendency toward the kneejerk reaction at all. Clever screenwriters could have explored these things and still worked in some shootouts and car chases and stuff blowing up real good.

Instead, I, Robot breaks new cinematic ground in the realm of speculative scientific philosophy… for 1953. It consciously and deliberately evokes everything from Brazil and Blade Runner to The Terminator and Robocop to 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Twilight Zone, but only as jokes, as references in the production design, even in plot points. Hell, even the cheesiest episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Data pondered his positronic brain had more a-ha! moments than this future-gasm of an action movie. Proyas is only interested in making you laugh or think “Wow, that’s cool!” or jump out of your seat for reasons that, when you think about them, make no damn sense at all. But there’s cars that drive themselves and electronic crime-scene tape and a videogame-esque car chase/battle sequence with the inorganic CGI robot army from Star Wars: Episode I gone haywire, so what kind of sense does it have to make, anyway?

Still, some of the idiocy is just too much to take. Like this: Spooner’s friend Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell: Space Cowboys, The Green Mile), who just happens to be the scientific genius behind these phenomenally useful yet entirely nondisruptive-to-the-economy robots, is dead, has committed suicide, and Spooner is on the case. Half a day after his death, Spooner goes to Lanning’s glorious old mansion, which is full of beautiful furniture and expensive-looking scientific equipment and wondrous art and a cute furry cat… and Spooner is apparently completely unsurprised to discover that a gigantic destructo-robot has been positioned outside the manor and is programmed to demolish the place on the morrow. When Lanning’s close coworker, Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan: The Recruit, The Sum of All Fears), hears of this, she also is thoroughly unperturbed. Now, forget the fact that Spooner has his doubts that Lanning killed himself, suspects murder, and that the dead man’s house could be full of possible clues to his killer. When somebody dies in 2035, his house and all his belongings, no matter how valuable either sentimentally or monetarily, and even his pets are demolished almost instantly as a matter of course, and everyone is fine with that? You could make an entire movie about how every distant relation of Lanning’s came out of the woodwork to lay claim on a piece of his estate, seeing as how they’re all so poor now that his damn robots put them out of work and so really need just one Old Master painting, ain’t it ironic?

Of course, the whole destructo-robot thing is just an excuse to have someone reprogram the thing to destroy the house while Spooner is in it, cuz he’s getting too close to the truth about something or other. While the Terminator-Transformer thingie smashes and attacks and roars and does all sorts of big loud destructo things from which Spooner (and the cat) Just Barely Escape In The Nick Of Time, all you can think is, This makes no fucking sense at all.

But hey! Enjoy this gratuitous Will Smith shower-scene butt shot! Woo-hoo! (Don’t worry: there’s a gratuitous shower scene featuring Bridget Moynahan, too.)


MPAA: rated PG-13 for intense stylized action, and some brief partial nudity

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

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