In the hands of the late, great Stanley Kubrick I, Robot (2004) would have been a very interesting film indeed. Like the sci-fi project he had nursed for many years before his death, A.I (for which Steven Spielberg dutifully took up the reins), Kubrick’s version of I, Robot would have engendered a fascinating new take on his bleak world outlook and mechanical view of mankind. Of course cinematic idealism and the summer blockbuster are two very different things, and Hollywood has never shown too much interest in mixing them. Back to reality and the man actually charged with bringing Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot stories to the screen is the Australian director Alex Proyas, whose previous films have included the portentous The Crow (1994) and noir homage Dark City (1998).
An assimilation of Asimov’s short story collection of the same name, I, Robot envisions a future Chicago of perfect technological articulation where computers control our highways, robots haul our trash and CD players are voice-activated. Will Smith plays Detective Del Spooner, a brash, roguish cop whose preference for vintage Converse trainers and antique living make him a walking anachronism in this age of automation and streamlined design. Spooner’s rejection of modern living also extends to a deep-seated mistrust of the city’s robotic population, so much so that to him every robot is either a potential bag snatcher or worse, a murderer. When Spooner is called to the apparent suicide of his old friend and U.S. Robotics founder Dr. Alfred Lanning, his suspicions lead him to believe that the doctor was actually killed by a robot named Sonny, one of a new line soon to be released throughout Chicago.
So begins a film that manages to wield as many good ideas as bad ones. Writers Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman do well in extracting a useable chunk of story from the swathe of robot shorts penned by Asimov in the fifties, and their addition of Smith’s character Spooner makes an ideal way to explore a more general backstory of ‘robophobia’. Proyas’ direction however completely undoes their scripted potential. Proyas allows Smith to play Spooner as basically a toned down, PG-13 facsimile of his Bad Boys (1995) incarnation Detective Mike Lowery; the only cop with street-cred and intuition, Spooner must throw in his badge and defy authority in order to solve the case and be home in time for tea. The other players, including Bridget Moynahan’s icy Susan Calvin and Chi McBride’s Lt. Bergin, are given scant attention while Spooner’s romantic relationship with Calvin fails to convince at all.
The look of I, Robot also throws up a similar dichotomy. The production design by Patrick Tatopoulos is convincingly rendered and novel enough, even amngst the many cinematic visions of the future that began with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Yet the robots themselves, which the film’s whole artifice rests upon, are implausible and at times poorly integrated into the live-action world. They suffer badly from the ‘weightlessness’ inherent in CGI creations and are frequently (and very bizarrely) filmed in a Matrix-inflected slo-mo that does little to remedy their tangible lack of bulk. That said, the lead robot Sonny, voiced and animated by Alan Tudyk, is diverting enough and undergoes a more satisfying character development than any of the flesh and blood actors – but he is still not enough to save the million-dollar look of the film from looking rather cheap.