I’m fairly certain that throughout his illustrious career, Isaac Asimov never once jotted the phrase “Aw Hell No!” into any of his groundbreaking novels that took science fiction literature to new heights, but then, the acclaimed author never had to write a role for the man who sang “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” either, so I guess turnaround is fair play…
I am, of course, referring to I, Robot, Will Smith’s 2004’s science fiction thriller that is extraordinarily loosely adapted from Asimov’s works (if it where any looser it would be a wind sock on a breezeless day). Choosing instead to be “inspired” by the authors work on artificial intelligence and in particular, the Three Laws Of Robotics, I, Robot was kind of shoved to the side upon release due to it’s fast and loose usage of it’s source novel but now is actually one of those films that’s somewhat overdue an appraisal. Electing to be a tech-heavy, neo-noir whodunit with a bonus commentary about the nature of life and whether A.I. can grow a soul, the film riffs on a number of other, similar films and contains more than a few spiffy action scenes that bolt more than it’s fair share of typical Will Smith-isms onto Asimov’s groundbreaking concepts.
Welcome to Chicago 2035; a bustling city where virtually every household owns their own personal robot which are used for domestic tasks like something right out the Jetsons and eight million times cooler. Someone who doesn’t agree is Detective Spooner, a Converse trainer obsessed copper who distrusts and despises everything to do with robots and treats all modern technology the way an 85 year old pensioner treats Siri thanks to the usual handy-dandy past traumatic event that all these characters have. Summoned to the offices of U.S. Robotics to investigate the apparent splattery suicide of friend Dr. Alfred Lanning, Spooner stumbles across Sonny, a brand new model of robot that attempts flee, claims Lanning programmed him to have emotions and who Spooner immediately suspects is mega guilty. As the Detective attempts to unravel this robo-conspiracy, dodge numerous murder attempts AND deal with his own tech-prejudice before U.S.R releases their new robots on sale to the public (definitely a case of Spooner rather than later), he soon finds himself confronting an enemy that are fast, exact and can jump like they’re in the sodding Matrix. If the paranoid policeman doesn’t alter some of his views and except the help of someone he would normally consider his enemy, he’s going to violently experience that soon they’ll be no Spooner…
As we know, most technology upgrades are a shiny version of something that already exists which is why so much of I, Robot feels repurposed from other fantasy based cop murder mysteries (believe it or not, it amusingly has a LOT on common with Who Framed Roger Rabbit) but the overarching theme of an everyday underclass rising up to threaten their jaded oppressors has much more in common with the 1970’s simian sequel Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes than anything else which sort of makes it feel like an unofficial remake; a Planet Of The Apps if you will… Directed by arch world builder Alex Proyas, helmer of such visual extravaganzas such as The Crow, the criminally underseen Dark City and *coughs* Gods Of Egypt (I didn’t say they where all good…), we get a brightly lit society teflon coated with CGI sheen that’s as super-slick and polished as the sleek NS-5’s themselves realised by substantial visual effects holding up nicely regardless of the upgrading of technology in the years since. With it’s musings on artificial consciousness channelled through the conduit of a brooding lawman it also vaguely resembles Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner with the lights on although never quite reaches the depths of that earlier classic.
An argument could be made that the presence of Big Willy himself somewhat causes a short circuit of I, Robot’s lofty aims and that his signature wise cracks are at odds with the film’s influences but despite Smith’s insistence on trolling of every character that treats themselves too seriously but he’s actually a decent, analogue anchor to the world we’re dropped in and a startling plot twist involving a physical attribute that’s dropped on us like a piano gives him some much needed gravitas. He’s especially invaluable in the expansive action scenes whether fleeing a giant demolition-bot as it tears down the house he’s in or (in the movie’s coolest scene) avoiding an all-out mobile assassination by an army of ‘bots as Spooner is absent mindedly driving his car – years of getting slung about by cartoonish aliens in the Men In Black franchise makes him perfect for squaring off with a bunch of killer robots that look like Apple has designed bambi-eyed sex dolls.
The rest of the cast can’t really withstand the twin onslaught of Smith’s charisma and the digital whizz of Digital Domain’s visuals; Bridget Moynahan is barely functional as a humourless robo-psychologist (real job apparently) and Shia LaBeouf essentially plays the exactly same screechy role he did in Constantine a year later. However, the award for man of the match goes to the ping pong suited, mo-cap performance of sci-fi stalwart Alan Tudyk, whose portrayal of programmable prime suspect Sonny predates his noticeably similar role of K-2SO in Rogue One by about 12 years. Bridging the gap between the technical marvel that was Lord Of The Ring’s Gollum and literally everything else that came after, Sonny (in both performance AND execution) really should get more props for a style of acting that’s since given us Thanos, Avatar’s the Na’vi and Andy Serkis’ Caesar the ape.
While it’s true that the balance between Asimov’s concepts and Smith’s charismatic cynicism sometimes clash, there’s a distinct feeling that if I, Robot had spawned the sequels it’s final shot was heavily hinting at (Sonny becoming a mechanical Moses – We, Robot, anyone?), we could have got a more darker and more expansive world in which the robots start to yearn for more freedoms (yet more parallels with the Apes franchise) and the direct comparisons between it’s leading “men” (Sonny’s blossoming humanity becoming at odds with Spooner’s cynicism) really could have given us some really intriguing themes.
While admittedly slightly derivative, I, Robot is typical of most tech upgrades: a sexy new look with dependable, interior mechanics.