"Christmas is a time when people of all religions come together to worship Jesus Christ."
-- Bart Simpson

I, disturbed.

DVD review of I, Robot.
The DVD release is my excuse for not having seen (and panned) this movie when it was in theatres.

Review in a nutshell: Only watch the last 20 minutes of this movie.

This is because the ending contains the most spectacular action (particularly the robot-on-robot martial arts), and because the plot makes more sense when you don’t watch the first three-quarters of the movie. Whatever references the characters make to the rest of the plot, alleviate your confusion by using your imagination to fill in the blanks …you’ll end up with a better story anyway. Whereas many movies seem to be the product of a decent script that falls apart at the end (with the logical explanation being that the screenwriter died in a horrible vending machine accident and the janitor found the unfinished script and wrote the ending himself – did you know that more people are killed by vending machines than by sharks each year?), I, Robot has the opposite problem – a terrible script that apparently had the ending doctored by someone that knew what they were doing. Hopefully that person also arranged for a vending machine to fall on the original screenwriter. Run THAT by a test audience! Normally I wouldn’t write so extensively about a poorly presented film, but this one started out as being merely quite bad but then descended into something that I found fairly disturbing.

Because of the slick visuals and interesting concept, including a reasonable attempt at some buzz-like marketing (ads for the featured robots appeared in theatres among the regular commercials as though they were actual products, before the previews) I, Robot was one of those big budget movies that I really wanted to like. Those hopes were dashed in the first 30 seconds. First off, Chicago seems to have advanced extremely rapidly in 30 years, resembling something you might create in SimCity 3000. Shiny skyscrapers and tubular trains abound. The Sears Tower is dwarfed by several other buildings (notably the one belonging to US Robotics – later to more closely resemble the Death Star). At ground level, this post-present looks more appropriate for something campy like Back to the Future part II. Thus right off the bat do we see how childish the script is. The writers and art directors (and therefore the producers) were obviously thinking in terms of Future versus Not Future, starting from scratch in 2035 as opposed to showing our own world 30 years from now. This simplistic mindset is also displayed via the robots, as 30 years of technology seems to have been concentrated only into robots, cars, and buildings, so that there aren’t various degrees of helpful technology everywhere, you’re either a robot or you aren’t. Again, it’s not my intent to harp so loudly about details like this, but they are symptomatic of larger flaws of perspective in this movie.

Furthermore, one has barely finished rolling their eyes at the laughable context when the audience is subject to the most blatant product placement I have ever seen. I’ve never really minded product placement in movies and TV, because I’d rather see someone drinking Pepsi than Acme Cola, so long as the fact they are drinking cola actually fits into the scene. Here, the courageous Detective Spooner proudly shows off his Converse All-Stars, and actually makes reference to them as being “Vintage 2004”. Ugh. Don’t you mean vintage 1950s? These shoes are referenced verbally on two other occasions, and this and the splashy Audi on constant display makes it plain that 20th Century Fox is for hire (I guess the upgrade to 21st Century Fox is costing more than expected).

So we begin with James Cromwell’s Professor Somethingorother falling to his death, with Will Smith’s Detective Spooner following the case to a particularly squirrelly robot named Sonny, one of a new line of robots that USR is about to roll out (naturally, the older models look requisitely obsolete even by 2004 standards). Except what is very striking about the story here is the fact that Detective Spooner seems to be the only person who has an issue with the existence of robots in the first place. His scepticism of the robots, even before the mayhem begins, is presented as an anomaly, as though 2004 was instantly transformed into 2035 and no one except him had noticed what had happened, as though this was a brand new issue and that there hadn’t been 30 years of liberal opposition to artificial intelligence with legs. When Sonny is suspected of being involved in Professor Whatshisname’s death, both Spooner and US Robotics seem to want to treat this as an isolated incident: the company claiming it’s a defect, with the Detective wanting to arrest Sonny for murder. Why the two sides couldn’t easily agree to this is odd. USR finds it ridiculous to treat him as a murder suspect yet they seem to want to treat him as an individual to find out what might be wrong. More odd still is the apparent non-existence of any government-like authority in this future world. No dismantling of Sonny followed by a huge lawsuit? No fines or regulations? In typical science-fiction style, the Professor that ‘invented’ the robots is of course the same person who drew up the laws that govern them (internally, anyway). You really get the sense that corporations run things and this one cop is the only person that isn’t brainwashed. No Big Brother plot backdrop here…everyone’s simply been numbed by watching reality TV for 30 years.

My problems with this movie started out with petty annoyances that kept growing, so that once the action started, I couldn’t help but shift my perception from Will Smith versus US Robotics to Humans versus NewsCorp (you know, the employer of those friendly folks at FoxNews). Since the movie bugged me so much I had a nagging feeling that the bad guys represented the studio and its owners. Since they don’t portray any human emotion or free thought, I wonder if they expect their audience to have any either. Even Sonny is more life-like than most of the characters, Bridget Moynahan’s vapid scientist foremost among them, who never seems to stop expressing dumbfounded astonishment that anything could be wrong with this perfectly automated world. (As I read when the Final Fantasy movie came out, actors don’t have anything to fear from technology, only bad actors do). The half-assed way in which the producers gloss over any ideological resistance to a world filled with allegedly servile robots (ultimately domineering or not) is insulting enough that it almost seems like they are championing the cause of this technology and think that Smith’s character does enough to offer balance, which of course it does not come close to doing. When the robots start to take control at the end, there are mere smatterings of conscientious objectors.

The fairly optimistic portrayal of the world thirty years on could be dismissed by the ubiquitous suspension of disbelief, but there is too much else to disbelieve in this movie for the producers to expect us to look past it all. My main issue here is that what they would have you believe or accept is indicative of their world perspective, and the ‘they’ in this case happen to be some very influential people. There is such a lack of humanity in this film to juxtapose the omnipresence of artificial intelligence that it makes you wonder if they understand people at all and wonder why they protest about anything.

On a lighter note, this movie contains some fantastic special-effects and action sequences. The final fight in the Death Star and the tunnel chase verge on mind-blowing, though all the explosions make me wonder why these techno-savvy denizens are still using internal-combustion engines. Maybe the Iraq war is about preserving the future of action movies? With the great effects and sometimes-thrilling scenes it’s too bad they couldn’t find a better box of Cracker Jacks out of which to pull a story.

Feel free to take my soap-box musings with a grain of salt or a roll of the eyes of your own. The next thirty years will indeed bring us countless technological advances, and a goodly portion of them will be bad ideas. Many of them will come about because we can and not because we should. As I said, the lack of human response in I, Robot, apart from the token Spooner, suggests the makers of this film and their bosses want things to go full steam ahead, or full nuclear ahead, or something. The blunt product placement and the huge ad for the studio at the start of the DVD support this. When formations of robots end up marching in the streets announcing curfew (with only one brave lad questioning this), I couldn’t help but picture Rupert Murdoch muttering in a Denethor-esque tone: “Yes, I wish that.”

10 Responses to “I, disturbed.”

  1. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but as I read your diatribe I was reminded of Leia’s words, “I know. Somehow I’ve always known.”

  2. Your insight serves you well.

  3. So what did you think of Signs?

  4. I’ve been racking my brain trying to find a way to resurrect “robo-erotic”, but this stupid movie didn’t even feature any android lovin’…

    Personally, I don’t think Isaac Asimov stories should ever be made into movies unless it’s handled by someone like Peter Jackson. Asimov storytelling is generally fairly cerebral, and not typically suited to the action/sci-fi genre, particularly the “summer blockbuster” phenomenon. If this is how I, Robot was butchered, I’d hate to see what damage they could do with the Foundation series (which, sadly, it seems they’re trying to do).

  5. I thought Signs was pretty dumb.

  6. Jay Stone, eat your heart out. The Citizen would do well to hire on someone who doesn’t automatically give all movies at least three stars… (apologies to my wonderful husband, who thinks Stone’s reviews are gospel) :D

  7. Of COURSE Sonny was more life-like – it was Alan Tudyk!! (Shameless Firefly plug :) ).

    I haven’t read I, Robot, but I had the sense that Asimov was being butchered. That being said, I guess I had pitched my expectations so low that I was pleased by the ending. Personal pet peeve – “Bridget Moynahan’s vapid scientist”, the robot psychologist, was FAR too personable (and probably far too attractive too) – Robots are supposed to be the only thing she can relate to. Her googly eyes for Will Smith made me want to gag.

  8. OK, how the hell do I turn off the damn italics tags? grumblegrumblegrumble….

  9. You have to use a </i> — <i> starts the italics, </i> turns it off.

  10. Thank you! Me forgot the slash.

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