Chris's Disc Reviews

I, Robot (2004)

A review of the DVD / Blu-ray release by Chris Harris, who has been going to the movies for half a century, so he's seen quite a few films in his time.


Disk format: DVD

Region: 2

Directed by: Alex Proyas

Starring: Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, James Cromwell, and Bruce Greenwood, with Alan Tudyk as "Sonny."

Alex Proyas was the director responsible for two films I really enjoyed - The Crow, and Dark City. While he made a good job of adapting the graphic novel of The Crow, this time he's adapting the book I, Robot by Isaac Asimov and to sum up the rest of this review: apart from the title, there's not an awful lot of the book left.

Twenty years ago, when Ridley Scott directed Blade Runner, he devoted a lot of time and energy to thinking about what happens "outside the window." Before filming started he had a clear vision of how his world worked, what the social and ecological implications were, and how humanity had got to that point from where we are now. As a result, his vision of the future had coherence and depth. In I, Robot, the Chicago of 2035 is shiny and sunny, populated by shiny people and even shinier translucent robots, is full of shiny big buildings and roads full of shiny new cars. Despite this, there are unfinished freeways, miles of junk and and desolate wastelands full of abandoned shipping containers just up the road. Unless I missed something, why this should be so never becomes clear. There's no depth, no attempt to convince us of this reality and no explanation of how things came to be this way.

Will Smith plays the wisecracking cheeky grin character that he's played in just about every other film I've seen him in, but this time he seems decidedly ill at ease doing so. I'm not surprised: his character doesn't appear in any of Asimov's books. Can you imagine someone making a film of another science fiction classic like Larry Niven's Ringworld or Arthur C Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama and adding someone called "Detective Del Spooner" to run about a lot and hurry the plot along? The bolted-on dialogue Smith has to wade through is disjointed, implausible, or just plain corny. I also think the Spooner character's arc is questionable, almost unpalatable. For me, his character owes a lot to M. Emmet Walsh's character in Blade Runner - he's deeply prejudiced against robots and suspicious of their motives. But this film isn't Blade Runner: here the bigot turns out to be right. That's kind of an interesting message to deliver, don't you think?

The film does have some good points.The special effects are, of course, spectacular. After WETA Digital's success with Gollum, it was inevitable that we'd see motion capture and computer graphics twinned together to produce some decidedly non-human characters in films. I also liked the fact that the original book's firm of US Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc. has been replaced by - who else? - US Robotics, but unfortunately things don't stop there. The product placement issue has been discussed elsewhere, and yes, it is just as in-your-face pointless as everybody says. Okay, I can live with the contribution made by Audi to the film, as they produced a beautiful prop that actually looks like it's supposed to be there, but when Will Smith gets excited by his new pair of basketball boots? Oh, puh-leeze!

But what really annoyed me was how the robots themselves are represented on screen. In Asimov's original books, every robot's positronic brain is indelibly programmed with the famous three laws of Robotics. Robots aren't allowed to harm humans, to allow humans to be harmed through their inaction, and robots must only protect themselves when this will not result in humans being harmed. These laws are irrevocably built in to the very structure of every robot. Asimov uses this fact - to great effect - in a number of the stories in both I, Robot and The Rest of the Robots.

The only sequence in the film that's recognisably taken from one of the I, Robot stories is where Will Smith needs to find the "bad" robot which is hiding in a vast room full of identical machines. In Little Lost Robot, the fugitive is revealed because it has to - is compelled to - save a human in danger through its obedience of the three laws. This was obviously considered far too cerebral so instead in typical Hollywood fashion, Will Smith blows robots to bits with his gun until the suspect reveals itself - an approach that is explicitly rejected in the original story.

The major premise of the source material must have been so inconvenient for the writers, limiting the amount of gunplay, Matrix-style kung fu or stuff blowing up that they could work into the plot. Why bother even presenting the three laws of robotics at the beginning of the film? Just abandon the pretext of the book, invent a whole bunch of stuff and one-dimensional characters, and then give the robots a red light on the front: just like a US Robotics modem, ha ha. Make it so that, when the red light's lit, it means that the robots don't have to obey the laws any more. Oh, and don't forget to make sure the headquarters building blows up at the end.

The result is a sad, predictable, by-the-numbers hack job. Hey, this is the movies - nobody's going to ask why, when the robots come after our hero in wave after wave, intent on taking him out of the picture, nobody else seems to notice that anything unusual is going on. No one will want to know how come, in fact, the teeming city shown in the rest of the film seems curiously empty at the time.

Asimov must have been spinning in his grave.

The two-disc DVD comes with a mind-numbing four hours of extras, concentrating primarily on stunts and animatics produced during the making of the movie, but there is little mention of Asimov and the work that inspired the film. Hmmm, I wonder why that might be?

Chris's rating: Two stars, and I'm being much too generous.

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