Del Spooner (Will Smith) is one of Chicago’s finest (for lack of a better cliché). A homicide detective, he’s a sarcastic, fast-talking short-tempered hothead who’s “allergic to BS” and keeps his higher command, Lt. Bergin (Chi McBride), constantly reaching for the Aspirin. It’s 2035 but his apartment looks like 1995. He could have the latest in audio technology but prefers an older model JVC CD player and uses it to listen to 20th century music. Spooner clearly has a knack for nostalgia. Equipped with classic 2004 Converse sneakers -- a slick product-placement promo I am sure -- Spooner never really caught on to this future business.
The city, like in most futuristic thrillers, looks bleak and gray. Large multimedia billboards alert pedestrians via an ominous voice of weather trends, shopping deals, and of course the latest status update on the NS-5; U.S. Robotics’ (USR) most advanced robot to date. So fast USR is producing that soon one in every five Americans will own their very own robot. Spooner is not thrilled.
But there’s nothing to worry about, asserts USR. The robots are harmless as they are programmed to follow three laws: 1) A robot may not injure a human or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm; 2) a robot must obey orders given to it by a human, except where it would conflict with the first law; and 3) a robot must protect itself, as long as that protection doesn't violate either the first or second law.
That these laws will be argued and debated down to its philosophical core, and that they will be broken should come at no surprise to you. It’s how they are broken and how they are examined we anticipate, and the film handles this task remarkably well.
Spooner remains suspicious, and his fears are confirmed when he is called out to the USR headquarters when he learns that the company’s founder, Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell) has apparently fallen to his demise from his 10th floor office. The death is quickly ruled a suicide, but after examination, Spooner determines such a task was impossible for a man of Lanning’s stature. But what about the robot who was present in the room at the time of Lanning’s fall? But it can’t be...robots can never break the three laws!
As shown in the trailers, Spooner is given the opportunity to interview Sonny (voiced by Alan Tudyk), the robot discovered lurking in the room when Lanning supposedly committed suicide. But at this point only Spooner is accusing the robot. Everyone knows that these robots can’t harm people and Lt. Bergin even suggests taking a vacation, but Spooner knows there isn’t any time to waste.
To help his investigation, Spooner relies on a holographic recording left by Lanning so he may help him solve the murder (or suicide) posthumously. Spooner recruits USR psychologist Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), one of the firm’s most prominent engineers who knows the complete makeup of the robots inside and out (and conveniently has access to every room inside USR’s headquarters). The CEO of USR, Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood) is uncooperative for he fears Spooner is trying to bring down USR and rid the United States of these potentially dangerous robots. And that’s exactly what Spooner plans to do, that is unless Robertson can stop him. And with good reason, as according to Spooner, Robertson is the richest man on the planet and stands to profit handsomely with the release of the NS-5s.
Will Smith brings his trademark quirky one-liners to the film but they’re often diluted by the movie’s dark tone which doesn’t allow for long periods of comic relief. For example, in one scene he informs a cat that as a black man he cannot date the poor feline, but before he can get a response a programmed demolition-machine begins snapping the walls of the building like toothpicks. Important characters die unexpectedly, and a story Spooner tells of a past car accident is quite chilling. This isn’t the usual Will Smith “Men in Black” movie.
“I, Robot” was directed brilliantly by the incredibly gifted Alexa Proyas, whose timeless classic “Dark City” will forever be remembered in my mind by its distinctive camera shots. Mystery was conveyed from a shot above a swinging light bulb and from underneath a murky bathtub. Proyas’s style is seen here with a camera shot from above a ceiling fan looking through the blades at the characters. For what particular reason I am not sure other than that Proyas is clever with his camera.
When considering the film’s budget, “I, Robot” is in its own league compared to earlier films Proyas has directed such as “The Crow” and “Dark City.” Proyas, unlike so many other modern directors, doesn’t let the movie’s purse get in the way of making a good movie Often cinematographers get too crazy with their expensive cameras and give us the MTV effect; a jumbled fast-cut collage of moving images that often offend our senses. Proyas and his cinematographer, Simon Duggan, keep it light and crisp.
Occasionally the film brings itself to slow-motion, so we can watch the acrobatic movements of the robots in action, or to see the shotgun shells rip into the exoskeleton of an approaching NS-5. But not for long. Only a glimpse and then back to real time. This preserves the effect and keeps the fuse from getting burned. Numerous action flicks I randomly think of like “Charlie’s Angels” and “Torque” remain on overdrive to the point of engine failure. But Proyas’s crew is too gifted, and never do we tire of the cameras or feel they’re too fast for us to keep up with. Proyas doesn't dwell on the film’s spectacular visuals but instead lets them go to work.
And the visuals are beautiful. The robots are graceful and move with great speed, making the inevitable chase scenes fast and fun. Like Nightcrawler from “X-Men 2,” the robots can climb walls and dodge bullets with ease. Spooner’s driving skills are put to the test in a near-deadly encounter with the first evil robots of the movie. Not a single action scene, in my opinion, fails to impress.
The film was suggested by the anthology from Isaac Asimov, whom sadly is long passed and never had the chance to see this production. His resume includes other films based on robots and cyborgs, and “I, Robot” is a great way to top the list. Written for the screen by Jeff Vintar (“Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within") and Akiva Goldsman (“The Da Vinci Code ,” “A Beautiful Mind”) the movie is a major part of the impressive summer season we’re having.
Admittedly, the climax resembles more of the usual laser-light-show finale than anything coherent but it is executed so well that I didn’t mind the piling on of killer robots and the less-than-necessary explosions in the end. Because it works. “I, Robot” isn’t your typical summer popcorn flick. “Men In Black” didn’t make me think about the future. “I, Robot” makes me glad I live in a USR-free world. But on the other hand, who wouldn’t want their own NS-5? These things are marvelous. During interrogation, Spooner tries to separate man from machine by asking Sonny, "Can you write a symphony, or paint great works of art?" Sonny simply shoots back, "Can you?"
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