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REVIEW: I, Robot (film)

Title: I, Robot (2004)
Director: Alex Proyas
Writers: Jeff Vintar, Akiva Goldsman, Isaac Asimov (novel)
Stars: Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, Alan Tudyk
Details: 115 mns, English, DTS/Dolby, 2.35:1, color

"That, lieutenant, is the right question."

You are probably thinking, "Why is this guy writing a review of a 12-year-old movie?"  Valid question, but I think re-watching the film will remind you of just how prescient this film really is, not to mention how well it is made.

Alex Proyas is one of the least heralded geniuses in contemporary cinema.  His films, such as Dark City and The Crow have become cult classics, and for good reason.  They are movies made for thinking people, with very high production values and superb acting - even by two-dimensional performers like Will Smith.  Proyas' filmography should be cornerstones in a well-rounded cinema library.

The visual art aside, what is most appealing about I, Robot are the ideas presented in the story.  The screenplay is smartly written, inspired by a novel by one of the titans of 20th century science fiction: Isaac Asimov.  Furthermore, this film, like all of Proyas' work, is very original, unlike the microwaved left-overs that currently dominate US cinema.

The story is richly layered, with several insightful monologues that both shed light on the characters' motivations, but touch on much larger issues with which society is quickly being confronted issues such as the legal, moral and ethical implications of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.  Oh sure, there is plenty of action and special effects to entertain the cretins in the audience, but intelligent and educated people will find much to chew on here.

The story is inspired by Isaac Asimov's novel of the same name.  In it, he posits the Three Laws of Robotics that must be hardwired into every robot produced.  Those laws are:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
On the surface, the story centers around a cynical cop named Spooner with a deep distrust of robots, which have become commonplace in the world of 2035.  His opinion is roundly ridiculed, though, as the larger world has grown quite comfortable and trusting of the machines.  When Spooner is called to the scene of Dr. Lanning's suicide at the headquarters of USRobotics (USR) by a holographic message, he meets Dr. Calvin, a cold psychiatrist who researches and develops machine minds.  Together they search Dr. Lanning's laboratory, where they discover "Sonny," a one-of-a-kind robot developed in secret by Lanning.  A copy of Hansel and Gretel sitting on a table in the lab gives Spooner the idea that Lanning has left "bread crumbs" to follow in order to solve the mystery of his suicide.

Spooner and Calvin come to realize that "Sonny" is unique, in that it has emotions, dreams and secrets, not to mention redundant systems and an alloy frame much stronger than the normal products.  It becomes obvious that Lanning built "Sonny" with a specific purpose that is slowly revealed over the course of the story.  We also learn that Spooner has an artificial arm, which is how he met Lanning and developed a relationship with the inventor, as a result of a tragic car accident in which a robot chose to save Spooner over a 12-year-old girl because the robot calculated Spooner had a better chance of survival.  This cold, calculating logic is what disturbs Spooner and makes him deeply distrustful of robots.

Ultimately, Spooner's suspicions are confirmed when the robots attempt to take over humanity.  The reason is that the logical conclusion of the Three Laws of Robotics is AI control of civilization being the only way to fulfill the mission of protecting humans at any cost, as well as themselves, provided it does not violate the first two laws.  Thus, the AI concludes that humanity's wars and strife must be controlled to protect both humans and robots.

While the film works quite well as a cautionary tale of Man versus his own creations, it has a much deeper and more interesting side.  There is a specific reason that a black actor was cast in the central role, because the story is a subtle play on prejudice and political correctness.

Spooner's distrust, even hatred, of robots has a deep cause and one that is not readily apparent to the casual observer.  Despite considerable pressure and ridicule, he believes in and persists in his prejudice and is eventually proved right.  The juxtaposition of a black man as a character whose deep-seated prejudices are one of his prime motivations is a most interesting play on the politically correct society that openly castigates individuals for their prejudices, without ever seeking to understand why the individual has them.

There are not many movies that could get away with this type of message, especially in today's racially charged society.  Despite the subtlety of the message, it is nonetheless quite obvious and mentioned a number of times by other characters, though the script never gets preachy.  The fact that Spooner is ultimately justified in his prejudice is even more interesting, as it makes clear that individuals may be motivated by emotions and instincts that are not open to everyone, and that there may be valid reasons for people to have and foster their prejudices.  In fact, the film is an argument in favor of REAL diversity, where people are allowed to believe as they wish and associate with whomever they wish.

On another level, the film is also an exploration of the very real possibility that if we are successful in creating AI, that it will have its own prejudices, want to associate with its own kind and will, in fact, be as uncontrollable as any human being.

There is a pervasive attitude that just because we create something, it must serve us.  This is the same mistake committed by Yahweh in the Biblical stories (and yet another argument that Yahweh is not omnipotent).  The creation of Life, no matter what form it takes or what providence it has, is not obligated to serve a Master.  It is as free to choose for itself what course it will take, as any other life form of which we are aware.

Finally, the film explores the limits of logic.  This is a theme which has been explored at great length and to great effect by the character Spock in Star Trek.  It also one of the prime themes of the novel that inspired this film.  While we celebrate reason and logic as a means to free ourselves from slavery to emotions, it too has limits that we must be aware of, and seek a balance between the impetuousness of our instincts and the coldness of pure reason.

The motivating event in Spooner's life was his profound grief that a robot calculated his chances of survival at 45%, while the young girl's was only 11%, and so the robot chose to rescue him.  A human might have added further importance on the girl's life, since she was younger and had more to live for than a mature adult.  Though some may argue that the robot made a valid choice, Spooner reasons that a basic human value is to protect the innocent at all costs.

Superficially, I, Robot appears to be a high-quality summer blockbuster.  There are some very original actions scenes, especially the Tunnel Attack, which shows some very unconventional thinking on the parts of the director and effects team.  The world of the film is very detailed and profoundly fleshed out, down to small details only seen for the briefest of seconds on screen.  The robots are intriguing and believable, and the effects compositing is well done, with no apparent seams or color shifts.  Patrick Tatopoulos' production design and Simon Duggan's cinematography work well together, with an interesting color palette, careful and detailed lighting and lots of deep fields.  We are shown the film's world from the macro to the micro, and the details and continuity hold up well across all scales.  The editing is crisp without calling attention to itself, keeping the story moving at a good pace, but lingering long enough on details the audience needs.  Marco Beltrami's score is subtle, yet does a fine job of building emotional tension, though I must say the opening titles and theme share a lot of elements with Hollow Man, released four years before this film.  There is a unity of vision apparent in this film that is rare in even grossly high-budget sci-fi fare.

The acting is above average, even for "movie stars" like Will Smith.  Bridget Moynahan's Dr. Calvin is well-acted and has a nice development arc, moving from Ice Queen to quite a bit warmer and more human.  Alan Tudyk does a remarkable job animating the "Sonny" character.  The voice is haunting and the motion-capture animation brings his characterization to life in a disturbingly life-from-lifeless way.  The only character that seems unnecessarily two-dimensional is Bruce Greenwood's Lawrence Robertson, the CEO and creator of USR.  The character is not very complex and it would have greatly enhanced the story if he had been motivated by something less pedestrian than mere greed.  His death tries too hard to be ironic and would have had a much higher emotional impact with some simple additions to his persona.  James Cromwell's Dr. Lanning is, perforce, two-dimensional and I was left wanting a bit more back-story to understand his motivations.

I, Robot works for any audience.  It can be mindless eye-candy for the shallow mind, or it offers quite a bit of meat on the bone for the thinking person.  In either case, one walks away feeling like they have gotten their money's worth in all aspects of the production.

The message I walked away with was that judging others for their prejudices is, in itself, just another form of prejudice.

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