From way back in the silent film days with the classic Metropolis, film audiences have been fascinated with the very concept of robots. Just imagine a fully functional automaton that would serve the needs of mankind. Usually this winds up rather disastrously for the real people involved. Back in the nineteen fifties Science Fiction writer Isaac Asimov penned what remains one of the definitive set of stories concerning robots, part of which involves the now famous three laws of robotics. These laws, embedded in the positronic brains of the robots would, in theory, prevent robots from harming their human masters. Unfortunately, these laws are usually as effective as jay walking laws here in New York City. The latest member of this long line of stories is I, Robot. This is also part of the recent trend, mixing Sci-Fi with another genre, in this case the mystery. Detective Del Spooner (Will Smith) works for the Chicago Police force, he is also a bit of a technophobe. He really doesn’t trust the 2035 fashion of relegating more and more responsibilities to these technological wonders. Ironically, Spooner recently had an accident and now is fitted with a robotic arm. Spooner becomes involved with the apparent suicide of Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell) and in the tradition of mysteries that data back to the beginning of time, the detective has the nagging suspicion that fowl play is afoot. Although the clues lead to the conclusion that a robot was involved that would be illogical since the three laws would preclude such actions. Spooner is joined in the investigation by a staff member of US Robotics, Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) whose job is to increase the humanization of their product.
‘I, Robot’ manage to maintain some of the original themes embodied by the original Asimov tales. Back in the fifties it was difficult to present certain socially relevant topic so the smart writer surrounds these moral lessons in science fiction. Prejudice was one such theme. At the time the original robot series came out it was a politically and morally turbulent time, just before the dawn of the civil rights era. In this film there is a core that pays homage to this. You see a robot running down the street with a purse and you think thief. While the target of prejudice changes the heinous nature of this aspect of the human mind set remains the same. This film attempts to combine this morality play with a good old fashion murder mystery and a summer blockbuster action flick. While the actual script fails at various points the overall energy level pulls you through. The thing is thinking is not the usual requisite for such a summer flick. The film could have been better it was not expected to take on so much. The producers would have been better off deciding on one genre and sticking to it.
As always Will Smith is a force to be reckoned with, he still owns the summer action flick genre. While his performance here is not as well-honed as previous films like Independence Day or Men in Black, he still shows he has the talent to give the audience a performance that is enjoyable. Smith has that innate ability to bring an intelligent humor to any character he portrays. He is trapped in the direst of circumstances yet the audience can immediately identify with his character. Bridget Moynahan is one of the legions of fashion models that have decided to take on Hollywood. Considering her former profession Moynahan is beautiful and graceful but still has somewhat of a learning curve in the acting world. Recently it seems she likes to take on characters with a PhD after their names, trying a bit too hard to be seen as intelligent. She has a natural smart personality and need not try quite so hard. She works well off of Smith and displays a lot of potential that this film did not quite provide the opportunity to develop. One of the best character actors around, Chi McBride, portrays the requisite crusty police boss. While now known primarily for his role in Fox’s Boston Public, McBride is one of the best of the unsung heroes of film, the character actor. His presentation of Lt. Bergin gives the audience a foundation by providing a realistically human character.
Director Alex Proyas is no stranger to the dark, mysterious film. With flicks like cult classics Dark City and the Crow to his name he does not listen to the usual methods employed by most Hollywood mainstream directors. He usually builds worlds that are strange yet somehow familiar letting the audience feel a bit off edge. Since he has also directed some hundred music videos he knows how to handle fast pacing, Proyas tries to combine the two approaches but the script holds him back from displaying the full measure of his talent. The first half of the film seems to have the expository method of the soap opera where every conversation has to include unnatural details. Things like ‘I just came back from that trip where I encountered so and so’. There was too much detail to come across as actual conversations. In the second half Proyas is afforded more of a chance to shine. The film moves into high gear and we get the action and special effects we came for.
Fox has done a pretty good job with the DVD and follow up high definition offering for this flick. The Dolby 5.1 audio is spectacular but for a real thrill switch to the DTS track. This one has greater depth and a much better fill to the rear speakers. Both make great use of the sub-woofer that will literally shake the room. Some of the city chase sequences zip around the front and rear speaker giving them a better than usual work out. The anamorphic video maintains an excellent over all color balance ranging from harsh tones in the environment to a much softer glow in the robots. With 1080p and a more robust audio mix the Blu-ray infused new life into the mix. The move to this format reinvigorated a moderately successful movie.
This is the type of movie many seem to collect numerous versions of. Since 2004 I’ve received for review the DVD, Blu-ray and most recently the remastered 3D iteration of the film’s release. It is one of a growing number of post-conversion 3D releases that are hitting the shelves of collectors. This is certainly not a new phenomenon; it has been a standard pathway for films since the debacle of colorization. Like the abomination of pan and scan that completely destroyed the artistic vision of the filmmaker the move to add color to black and white films, particularly by Turner broadcasting, was met with a tsunami of vehement protests by filmmakers and devotees alike. To alter the composition of the frame or change the media from black and white to artificially induced colors is tampering with the core of the artistic integrity of the piece, in a notorious example of random color selection one film turned Frank Sinatra’s trademark blue eyes brown.
With the addition of the illusion of depth there appears to be less of an outcry than with prior upverting efforts. ‘I, Robot’ is an ideal example to consider this observation. First of all eliciting the illusion of depth is less destructive to the integrity of the film than cropping out portions of the scene or arbitrarily adding color. You can always remove the glasses and turn off the 3D effect to return to the original format; the choice resides with the audience. in the case considered here ‘I, Robot’ benefitted from the inclusion of depth, it is a technocentric story that is highly conducive to 3D retrofitting. The curvature of the robotic form is nicely highlighted by 3D. the illusion of reality is expanded with a pronounced improvement on telling the story. The chase scenes take on an added dimension, pun intended, in the new format, the battle sequence of robots spilling out to overwhelm Smith’s car. In 3D the hordes of robots is spectacular, heightening the impact of the original intent. This effect of reinforcing the original impact is repeated throughout the film making it worth another investment.
Full Length Audio Commentary by Director Alex Proyas and Screenwriter Akiva