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Asimov and the assembly line
A film review of I, ROBOT by Slarek
"We made a few changes from Asimov…"
Production Designer, Patrick Tatopoulos quoted in SFX # 121


No shit.

I, Robot is to literary science fiction as Battleship Potemkin is to film studies. Both occupy that hallowed ground of 'classic' and both remain not as well revered as they should be. Issac Asimov may be considering several hundred quiet rotations in his cramped, underground, wooden apartment but let's take some stock. Turning I, Robot into a movie (after all, it’s a book of short stories) was going to be akin to making a quadratic equation as mass audience-friendly as a rubber duck.

But, somewhere, someone has done something right because against every single odd, I, Robot works as both a bone-headed, summer action picture and for the most part, a scientific enquiry into the nature of artificial sentience. Let's not get carried away. It's still a Will Smith vehicle after all (an Audi as product placement is so proud of drilling into our skulls even in the goddamned close ups). But he does play a small fraction against type and the script is witty and literate enough to pass on Asimov's immutable robot laws somewhat undiluted.

Of course, hundreds of millions of dollars are not spent to satisfy ageing sf aficionados. The oh-so familiar elements are in place. Will Smith is a cool, young cop (man in black, robots in white – I, Mac almost) whose prejudice towards robots sets him on a trail of breadcrumbs to a robot revolution. Let’s see:

    1. Robot done Will wrong.
    2. Robot Supremo (Will's buddy) apparently slain by robot.
    3. Will's tenacity leads him to be No. 1 hero.*

*in which he overcomes any trace of personal darkness and emerges blinking having got over his dramatic arc.

Can someone inform Hollywood? People don't really have arcs. Only movie characters. Oh, so I guess that's OK then. There's not much more to summer 'event' movies is there?

At the heart of the picture is Alan Tudyk, the actor who brought 'Sonny' to life on set the way Andy Serkis served Gollum so well. His CG doppleganger's performance is graceful and nuanced (even if its design is shamefully close to those in the Björk video) which means that the animators have done an extraordinary job interpreting what must have been a fine performance from Firefly’s favourite (and only) pilot. Tudyk's voice has been electronically treated but the heart of the performance is intact. To praise an oft damned element of modern films in general (oft damned by myself, I might add), the CG characters and FX are superb and I, Robot is one of the very few films where the FX have integrated so well, you just accept them as if they were shot 'live'. That makes a big difference – a very big difference – in my appreciation.

Will Smith is a star who wants to be a real actor but who's offered only star parts. When you're six two, pugnaciously handsome and have the physicality of an immensely confident cat, there are few non-star roles to play. Detective Spooner fits Smith very well. The character takes him out of his audience-favourite star persona just long enough for the rougher edges to register. It's such a shame that those rough edges are smoothed down so quickly by the good guy robot (it's that arc again). When Spooner shoots a robot in an attempt to reveal his quarry amongst hundreds of identical figures, it made me think of (strangely) a matter-of-fact execution in Schindler’s List, which is perhaps giving it more weight than it deserved.

But it affected me. Smith has rarely had to do something so dark in his entire career. If we forgive the travesty that is The Fresh Prince (how that show makes my toenails grow in), Smith's career has been generally trading off his more adult, confident guy in the street (just not a Bel Air street please). He's likeable without being cloying and all he needs now to cement a path out of $15 million star roles is to be favoured in an Oliver Stone movie. Michael Mann served him well (and vice versa in Ali) but Smith still occupies a very hallowed place in the land of Hollywood demography.

He’s black – duh, (so apparently appeals to a black audience) but he’s also mega-white friendly (I mean, he rapped on TV without cussing). Isn't that like being a sober alcoholic? He was also the Smith to Tommy's Jones in one of the biggest movie hits of all time, Men in Black. Will Smith is the demographer's dream and all power to him. If ideas can voyage from one brain to another and the conduit is Will Smith, I'll thank the man personally. For the record, he was also Executive Producer. Once stars adopt that largely meaningless title (except when it comes to getting one's own way) we know they are attempting to do something they care about. I, Robot looms large on the screen but it also convinces that someone loves it.

The action based climax (the second half is nearly all action) contains vertiginous whip pans that actually make you wince as the robots converge on our heroes. Where is it written that movie sets have to have a multi-storey drop as a sort of default setting for… uh, sets? I knew (I really knew as in box-office knew) that Will and female partner would win out in the end so was surprised that I cared so much.

I, Robot hinges on the willing suspension of disbelief that a white, blue-eyed character could possibly be regarded as anything but the good guy. And that's just the robot. Tudyk's 'Sonny' is not on screen for enough time to make the philosophical questions resonate. He barely has time for a "What am I?" and for a toaster with legs, that's still quite an achievement (before he scurries up the walls to freedom).

I, Robot is good entertainment. If it passes on a smidgeon of Asimov's ideas along the way then the world is richer for it.

I, Robot

USA 2004
115 mins
Alex Proyas
John Davis
Topher Dow
Wyck Godfrey
Laurence Mark
Jeff Vintar
Akiva Goldsman
suggested by the . book I Robot by
Isaac Asimov
Simon Duggan
Shawn Broes
William Hoy
Richard Learoyd
Armen Minasian
Marco Beltrami
production design
Patrick Tatopoulis
Will Smith
Bridget Moynahan
Alan Tudyk
James Cromwell
Bruce Greenwood
review posted
20 August 2004