Tuesday, July 27, 2004

I, Robby

The first teaser trailer for I, Robot was spectacular. It was modulated and honed as are most commercials for the launch of new technology products. It was perfect. I couldn't wait. Asimov's robot stories were one of the singular joys of my childhood, and I return to them to this day as kind of a literary comfort food. It appeared somebody had read them and understood the unique tone that Asimov had created. Then came the preview trailer, with robots swarming all over to overamped music, clearly on the attack. Because Asimov felt that such an event was a cheap shot, and because humans would naturally have a lot of instinctual fear of a mechanical human, not once did anything remotely like that happen in any of his stories. Anyone who'd read them and loved them knew that. I was no longer excited about the movie. Clearly some hack had been handed the rights and a stack of cash, and pointed in ILM's general direction.

Still, I have a geekly obligation to see most sci-fi films, especially one that's based on something I love, so there I was. The first five to ten minutes of the film are dedicated to showing how hot Will Smith, Converse sneakers, and JVC stereos are. Typically, I couldn't care less about product placements, because they often seem natural; we all drink soda and eat at fast food places, so their presence just makes it more realistic. But these product placements were so lovingly shot that it's likely a second unit hired by an advertising company had composed the little vignettes. My hopes for the movie dropped even further. My wife had enjoyed the beefcake butt shot, though. (And Yamaha makes the best stereos, by the way.)

We waft through a scene reminiscent of Men in Black where Will runs down a robot, and then finally get to the plot which revolves around the death of the guy who more or less invented the robot "positronic" (a word invented by Asimov which means nothing, it just sounds cool) brain. Seems he committed suicide, but the fact that the movie is only minutes old and that Will is suspicious point to other conclusions. The robot is revealed in a scene reminiscent of The Matrix, where the robot leaps into the air, does some swat-fu maneuvers in slo-mo, then escapes out of the window where the supposed jumper met his fate. But only, of course, after Will pumps some shots into him, and he bleeds silver.

Then, an amazing thing happens: the movie starts to get kinda good. It actually does adhere to Asimov's world for the most part (massive robot attacks aside). It gets the character, though not the age and appearance, of Susan Calvin right. The robots are close to what Asimov envisioned, except they were often very still in the stories and only moved when absolutely necessary, which was one of the things that made them so otherworldly. In the movie, they're like people and are always in motion. And I bet that had to do with the fact they are computer animated. You pay an animator to move something and by God s/he's gonna move it. Anyway, a serviceable plot buoys the movie, but Will Smith is its saving grace. His performance is a case study on how a charismatic, skillful actor can make a movie.

He makes so many choices that are dead-on right, he practically holds this movie together with sheer will (oy!) and talent. The main robot itself sounds like Hal after a lobotomy, or Robbie the Robot's (Forbidden Planet) gay, stylish brother. But oddly he has no personality to help the flick along, which is odd because Asimov managed to infuse nearly all of his robots with some kind of uniqueness in spite of their mass produced origin. Susan Calvin is relegated to the chick in trouble stereotype, so she's no help. Will has to do all the heavy lifting, but he's the man for the task, it seems. The scene where he reveals why he hates robots so much is itself a showstopper. That man will have an Oscar someday.

The only huge gaffe in the movie, besides the aforementioned robot attack, is the setting of the finale. Without giving too much away, Galaxy Quest has a great joke about contrived obstacles at the endings of action shows, which I, Robot pulls out in spades. It's still a fun ending, but you might find yourself running Sigourney Weaver's dialogue in your head when the set piece is revealed.

James Cromwell plays the famous robot scientist, Dr. Lanning, who supposedly jumped to his death at the start of the film, and who is revealed through flashback and hologram. It's interesting where Cromwell has ended up as an actor. He's played the benevolent but flawed creators of Star Trek's warp drive, the positronic brain of Asimov's robots, and of course the farmer who trained a pig to herd sheep. Kids growing up today will probably imprint on his face as the one to trust, the one who knows all there is worth knowing, and anyone who resembles him will get automatic pass as a good and smart man.

If you like sci-fi, big action flicks, Will Smith, or Asimov's robot stories, you'll like this flick. It's not necessarily a big-screen movie, though, so if you want to wait for the DVD release, which will no doubt contains all those fun extra goodies, including the brilliant original teaser trailer, by all means do. Oh, and outside of some language and a brief glimpse of the jumper scientist in a pool of blood, this movie is OK for kids under 13, if you are OK with your kids being exposed to a little language and a quasi-realistic looking dead body, that is. Put it this way, this is Bugs Bunny compared to the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, which I know a lot of parents let their kids see. Which reminds me, if anyone is looking for a Sr. thesis in psychology, in about 10-15 years, there will be a cottage industry of recently grown people who were exposed to the scary and violent (but great) LOTR flicks unwittingly, and have all sorts of demons with which to wrestle.

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