If the blockbuster action movie of the ’80s and early ’90s was judged by the size of its explosions, the defining characteristic of the current age must surely be the number of computer-generated bodies (rarely humans — we prefer aliens, robots, or Orcs) that enter battle and are crushed by the always-outnumbered heroes. By this measure, I, Robot is a very successful film indeed.
The man who almost single-handedly sends them to the great motherboard in the sky is Will Smith, bulked-up, chiseled, and looking more like a cartoon superhero than ever. A recent New York Times article posed the question of whether heroic figures in movies were becoming softer, less muscular and more introspective, citing the Tobey Maguires and Jake Gyllenhaals of the world as examples. Smith’s pumped-up physique and take-no-shit mien certainly contradict the article’s thesis. He’s just about as old school an action hero as you could find.
His Del Spooner is the traditional lone cop (Later his lieutenant even takes his badge), recently divorced, with deep suspicions about the robot helpers that have become such an ordinary part of life. His colleagues (he’s too much a lone wolf to have any actual friends) all think he’s obsessed and crazy. Robots have never harmed a human, or even committed a crime of any kind. You see, it’s 2035 and this is Chicago, headquarters to a company called U.S. Robotics that has almost reached its goal of placing in every American home a robot that looks suspiciously like the ones in Chris Cunningham’s video for Bjork’s “All is Full of Love.” Robots are shown everywhere — walking dogs, delivering FedEx packages, collecting garbage; there are almost as many robots on the streets as there are people.
We’re told that robots cannot harm anyone because they must abide by the Three Laws that are hardwired into their systems:
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.
In his colleague’s defense, Spooner is a bit of a pill on the subject. Smith shows some courage in playing the early scenes as thoroughly obnoxious, cracking unfunny jokes and generally acting needlessly paranoid.
Spooner’s grudge against robots makes him the laughing stock of his precinct, but it seems to play a role as well when he’s called to the scene of an apparent suicide at U.S.R. Assisting him in his investigation is Dr. Susan Calvin, played by Bridget Moynahan. Though perhaps more famous right now for her relationship with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Moynahan is a promising talent. I first noticed her as Mr. Big’s young wife Natasha on “Sex and the City,” and since then she’s been popping up in increasingly larger roles in increasingly better films. A former model, Moynahan is refreshingly willing to dress down for a role. Her Dr. Calvin, though quite striking, wears her dark hair in an unglamorously simple fashion and consistently wears practical, fitted, pant suits throughout the film (she does have a shower scene, but it’s discreet — there’s a lot more of Smith’s bare flesh on display). The simplistic psychology the writers have given her is amusingly silly (She likes robots because — people can hurt you!), but Moynahan plays it gamely.
There’s a comic tension between Spooner and Dr. Calvin, which thankfully does not develop into a predictable romance. They grow to respect each other and appreciate the other’s talents, but they remain focused on the business at hand, which, of course, amounts to saving the world.
The third major character, and perhaps the most interesting, is Sonny, a robot whose creator endowed him with strengths and abilities that no other robot has ever had, including, quite possibly, the ability to experience emotions. Sonny, voiced by Alan Tudyk, is the equal of the other two leads both in his screen presence and the empathy he draws from the audience. His face, apparently made of some very flexible plastic, is wonderfully expressive. His existential predicament — how to show others that he can think and feel and hurt and love just as they do, though they see him as just a machine — becomes the heart of the movie.
The early scenes with Sonny are reminiscent of the scenes in Blade Runner discussing replicants, and it’s a little disappointing to see that the filmmakers haven’t brought anything new to that 22-year-old conversation. In the second half of the film, the issue is dropped and Sonny is treated basically as human, while the other robots are seen as completely expendable, and on a grand scale. It’s a bit of a cheat to bring in existential philosophy as a minor plot device and then discard it in favor of huge action scenes. Also, Spooner’s sudden conversion makes little sense. His dislike of robots is treated as a metaphor for racism, and yet it’s something he forgets all about upon meeting one good robot? Did Archie Bunker begin to appreciate and celebrate his black brothers after he met Sammy Davis, Jr.?
There are other plot holes as well, but really, who cares? This isn’t Blade Runner (which was always more intellectually shallow than it was given credit for, anyway); it’s another blockbuster July-Will Smith action movie. And it’s a good one. Just be prepared to shut your brain down after a while and simply enjoy the spectacle.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()