I, Robot

dir: Alex Proyas
[img_assist|nid=953|title=I can't wait for these robots to take over. I'm sure they'll be gentle masters|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=399|height=314]
Well before I get immersed in the arthouse stink of the Melbourne Film Festival, I thought I'd immunise myself with a hearty dose of mainstream blockbustery cheese.

Saying that this film has anything to do with the collection of Asimov short stories collected in a book of the same title is like saying
Michael Jackson is based on the template for a human being: in both cases the end product has little if anything to do with the source
material. The title, and the use of the concept of Asimov's Laws of Robotics are all that come from the writing of Asimov as far as the
plot is concerned. It doesn't really matter to me that much, because it's not like Asimov's going to care (he died several years ago), and
it's not as if anyone actually ever turns in their graves. Or at least I certainly hope not.

I, Robot is used as the title with the thinking behind it being that is has greater cachet value than 'Crazy Robots Fucking Shit Up' and certainly preferable to the double entendre possibilities of Man in Black, Men in Blacks or, Man, He's Black. As such even for those not familiar with the source material, I, Robot conjures up ye olde timey connotations of 50s sci-fi, science fiction as it was: pretentious, portentous and hokey all at the same time.

There is, however, despite the presence of Will Smith and the manic action premise, an interesting amount of food for thought. It's not an
all you can eat buffet of the mind by any stretch of the metaphor, but it's not insulting to my intelligence either. Well, not overly so. There is one action sequence in the middle and the film's action climax that perhaps abandons any semblance of logic and just embraces the lunacy of a well-designed action sequence. But overall there is more to like than to loathe in this film.

Calling this the best film Alex Proyas is responsible for is damning with faint praise. The Crow did little more than provide masturbation material for goth teenagers of either gender around the Western world, all wrapped up in the artifice of a revenge thriller. Dark City started with a total head-scratcher of a scenario and then pissed it away with an ending I still can't work out how to care about. It also suffered from a painful level of over-explanation which meant substantial portions of the dialogue were repetitious crap. And even with all that Screenwriting for Dummies stuff it still left the main premise unworkable, in my humble etc. (I'm not spoiling it for anyone, but I still don't accept 'where' and on 'what' they were). The less said about the egregious Garage Days the better. You don't pay tribute to an era and the joy of being young and loving music by making all your characters morons and then vomiting all over them. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

With the first two at the very least we can see that Proyas focuses on getting an interesting look for his films. Sure there's little that is
original about his 'vision', but there's something to be said for creating or organising an interesting 'look' to your movies. Most of
the heavy lifting in terms of set design and the 'look' of I, Robot has more to do with powerful computer processors rather than cuties in overalls painting a set a cool shade of black, of course, but it's still a very decent representation of one of our possible futures.

It is set in Chicago in the 2030s, which looks pretty much like now except for three major issues: buildings are taller and less symmetrical, everyone drives Audis which zip along at a cracking pace, and robots do most of the shit work that the rest of us can't be bothered with. In other words, people like you have become superfluous. That either means that now people are free to work in more fulfilling intemallectual jobs, illegal immigrants no longer work as maids, cleaners or taxi drivers, or that there is massive unemployment as all manual skilled and unskilled labour is out of the hands of pesky human meatbags. Unemployment is never mentioned, unfortunately, because I can imagine how stimulating that would have been as a subplot: Will Smith curbs inflation and improves jobless figures. With Extreme Asskicking!

Will Smith plays Will Smith in the same manner he's played Will Smith in every film he's ever been in bar two: Six Degrees of Separation and Ali. For my money he put in performances so good in those two that I pretty much forgive his mugging the camera in every single other fucking film he's ever in. Somehow Proyas managed to get a mostly more subdued performance out of him. I'm unsure as to how. I can just imagine the threats Smith could level at him if he ever tried to get Smith to do something differently from the manner in which he desired. If there was a major disagreement between a hack like Proyas and a megastar like the Fresh Prince of His Own Underpants, who do YOU think, gentle reader, the studio would side with?

All the same, Smith does turn it down so as to let some of the scenes work better than they would have had he been given free reign. I can
remember several scenes where I was thinking 'That's just the kind of scene where usually he'd go bugfuckingly berserk'. Still, he doesn't
vary much from the standard Smith template: wise-cracking, painfully macho over-compensating teenager in a very fit man's body. Very fit
indeed. Hmm, where was I? Oh yes, reasserting my heterosexuality.

Speaking of which, the main female lead Dr Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) is so incredibly (deliberately) mannequin-like in comparison to the
robots that I wondered if she was the special effect and that they were real beings. The main and only robot we get to know, Sonny, is
impressively realised. He looks great, and becomes a real character to the audience despite being constructed with nothing but numbers. Like most contemporary synthespians, he is based on the movements and mannerisms of a real person. He's probably a step above something like Gollum in the Lord of the Ring films, but then again he was probably easier to do considering he's a robot. Shiny surfaces and all that.

The classic trope in a new shiny package on display in this big budget extravaganza is the idea that people inherently distrust new technology. That despite our fetishistic consumerism that overwhelms us, deep down we should be aware that once technology outpaces the
development of our humanism, we are fucked, pure and simple. The main reason is that technology, especially the artificial approximation of
the self-aware sentience of humans is a dire mistake which will always lead to the same outcome: robots will try to kill us all.

Artificial intelligence persists in being just a euphemism for evil as far as Hollywood is concerned. Artificial intelligence causes the machines to take over the world in the Matrix movies, it leads them to nuke the world in the Terminator films, and an artificial intelligence is surely responsible for cyborg Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming the governor of California (long may his brutal reign continue).

Does artificial intelligence lead to evil outcomes here as well? Have you seen the commercials? Of course it does. But how and why, well
there's the rub...

Loosely adapting a different Asimov story entirely 'The Robots of Dawn', the story mainly follows the homicide investigation of a scientist's murder and the subsequent shitstorm that it unleashes. Though the vaunted Three Laws of Robotics are meant to guarantee that
all robots are unable to commit acts harming humans, it seems like something is rotten in robot Utopia. Robot hater and police detective
Del Spooner (Will Smith) is convinced that a robot killed the scientist, yet no-one believes him. He has a tough chief (Chi McBride)
who chews him out for his erratic un-future cop like-behaviour and actually asks him for his badge at one point. It's nice to see that
police chiefs in the future will still be spouting 1970s cop cliches. It brings us hope.

The Spoon finds a robot hiding at the scientist's murder scene called Sonny (Alan Tudyk), who he finds, after various chases and action
sequences, is not like the other kids. He, or it, has volition. Is self-aware. Has emotions. Sonny has a personality and the ability to
countermand both his programming and the wishes of his masters. It's interesting stuff. The plot continues to thicken as the thickened
plot, some time is killed, a few technoey red cyber e-herrings are sprinkled liberally about, few more action sequences, lessons learned,
wander off home. What more do you want you ungrateful punks?

There's a reasonable amount of fleshing out of the main character, in terms of explaining his hatred of robots (though when you think about
it, it doesn't make that much sense, just like much of what else happens). In terms of modern science fiction films (which are mostly
just action films with sci-fi window dressing), it's probably on a par with Minority Report. Minority Report was, without the set design, just a murder mystery as well. A pretty long one at that. This one isn't as long, and it doesn't have Tom Cruise in it, which is
certainly in its favour.

The robots are well realised. The different generations of robots as well, their 'physics' (mostly), their movements work remarkably well.
There is a battle betwixt hordes of humans and their robot slaves, which looked pretty good but needed to be bloodier. The 'future'
otherwise looks like a Microsoft executive's wet dream. Speaking of powerful logos, whilst we have come to expect product placement in
sci-fi films that have budgets over $100 million, the product placement hear is inexplicable. The main character actually spends time talking about his Converse sneakers in a manner so transparent you wonder how the people involved haven't died of shame. When you actually have a character saying to another 'But Grandma, these are great shoes, they're vintage Chuck Taylors from 2004, do you want me
to get you a pair?' you wonder whether the film has actually begun or whether the pre-movie advertising is still running.

Why make us sit through ads when you can just put them in the film? Minority Report is still the king of this vulgar form of product placement, but at least they (perhaps) satirised it at the same time by showing how fucking annoying marketing could become in the future.

Here it's just blatant. It's only going to get worse; you know it, I know it. A few films from now whatever character Will Smith is supposed to be will have a few moments in the film where he looks straight into the camera and states 'Buy these new Nike Mercuries'. Whilst shaking his fist at the audience, he repeats, just more ominously, 'Buy Them! I ain't saying another word or kicking another ass until you bitches get up out of your seats, run down the street and buy a pair of these sleek, sexy new Mercuries. That's right! That's what I'm talking about!' Count the days, count the ways...

A sequence in the middle where The Spoon is travelling in his car in a very long tunnel and is attacked by two large trucks full of robots
doesn't really make any sense. It looks decent, don't get me wrong, but it doesn't really make any sense apart from on the level where
someone working on the film said 'Wouldn't it be cool if we did this?', and everyone else agreed without really thinking it through. I
don't want to spoil it too much, but really, how is it that the tunnel was free of other cars? No surveillance in such a hyper-vigilant era
when the contemporary equivalents have cameras abundant? Wouldn't it have been easier if the truck in front just slowed down or stopped?
What if the two trucks came together in one big squishy mess?

I can overlook all of that, but the bit I find even more staggering is that not a single robotic particle remains in order to show that The
Spoon is telling the truth about being cyber-attacked. Of course this has to lead to the obligatory scene where Spoon has to hand in his
badge. That's just fucking lazy storytelling, that is. Luckily the film had earned enough of my goodwill to get away with it. That's what
it comes down to ultimately: if you like a movie, you'll overlook the plotholes, if you dislike it or a bored by it then you hold up the
plot holes as being emblematic of the film's worthlessness. You know it's true.

With a name like Spooner, or Spoon as I like to affectionately refer to him as, you'd have thought they could have replicated the gag that
arises from The Matrix which was used so beautifully in Dog Soldiers, but alas...

So overall though logically flawed, the story still carries through and makes a decent fist of proceedings. There's enough thought put into it so that it doesn't come off as a vacuous exercise in futility. It does make some interesting points regarding the nature of self-awareness and sentience, and some slyly ironic points regarding prejudice and racism (perhaps speciesism is the right term). The travails and the growing self-awareness of Sonny are enjoyable and interesting to watch. He's a viable character, a believable and entertaining one. Whilst a large part of the ending requires belief in the magical power of technology (I believe it was Arthur C Clarke and not Asimov who once opined that advanced technology and magic in fiction at least are indistinguishable), it does get the story to an interesting place, and doesn't simply wrap it up in a neat little package. Whilst the cynical may say that the ending is calculated to contract sequelitis dependent upon its success, I don't care. It's not the emotionally and viscerally engaging blockbuster that is Spider-Man 2, but it is still a big budget sci-fi movie that succeeds at what it sets out to do. And how many of you can say that, eh?

7 robot fists you wish you could see smashing through a screenwriter's face every time he or she puts in another 'Turn in your badge' scene
in a film out of 10.

'I don't usually do this, but since I'm here, I got a great idea for your next commercial. There's a carpenter, and he builds this beautiful chair. And then a robot comes along and builds another chair, twice as beautiful in half the time, and then it says: 'USR. Shittin' on the little guy.' Fade out' - Detective Spooner, I, Robot.