Movie Review: I, Robot

OK, so, maybe Wild, Wild West wasn’t so good. But it’s impossible to deny the power of the Will Smith summer blockbuster, and it’s just as hard to find a film that wasn’t made better by his talent and charm. The Bad Boys films. Men in Black and MIB 2. Independence Day. Smith makes good movies, and he’s always good in them.

And maybe when you saw the trailers for I, Robot, you thought, “Hey, it’s just another Will Smith summer blockbuster.” I did. It looked interesting enough, but it didn’t drive me crazy with anticipation the way that Spider-Man 2 or The Bourne Supremacy did. Having seen it I can now say that the marketing campaign for this film is completely misleading. Well, not completely. It’s true that I, Robot has every bit of the action and humor of a Will Smith summer blockbuster. But it also has much more heart, drama and depth than its trailers suggest.

I, Robot begins in Chicago in the year 2035. It’s a pretty good-looking future, and like the best movie futures, it’s subtle. (Think Minority Report, only a little more automated.) The most apparent difference is the presence of robots who keep the streets clean and perform service jobs as everything from waiters to garbage collectors. They are prized so highly as household accessories that they’re even given away as lottery prizes to those who can’t afford their own. U.S. Robotics, the robot-making industrial giant headquartered in Chicago, is about to release its most advanced robot ever: the NS-5. While previous models were humanoid in nature, the NS-5’s flexible face and human mannerisms take it one step closer to “humanity.”

Enter police officer Del Spooner, played by Will Smith. Spooner isn’t the typical happy-go-lucky Will Smith cop. He sleeps with his gun. He’s plagued by nightmares. He wears vintage Converse sneakers and still listens to his music on those pesky old compact discs that became obsolete decades ago. He also doesn’t like all the damn robots running around, and often feels as if he’s the only sane man left on the planet who doesn’t realize how ridiculous society’s acceptance of and reliance upon these robots has become.

Is it coincidence, then, that when legendary robot creator Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell) apparently commits suicide, the holographic message he leaves behind asks for the one cop who’s known to hate robots? Or how likely is it that an old man had the strength to throw himself through the shatterproof glass in his laboratory before falling to his death? Not likely, Spooner thinks. U.S. Robotics president Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood) isn’t about to let a simple suicide get in the way of the NS-5’s introduction into society (at the rate of one robot for every five human beings), and wants to keep the investigation quiet. Furthermore, Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), a psychiatrist whose job is to help make the robots seem more human, thinks Spooner is nuts for thinking that robots are even capable of being crazy. But when an errant NS-5 that’s named himself “Sonny” attacks Spooner at the scene of the crime, the conspiracy is set, the mystery is on and I, Robot kicks into high gear.

This is truly an incredible film that is smart, emotional and unpredictable. It raises big questions and doesn’t shy away from answering them. The script by Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman is from a screen story by Vintar that was “suggested” by the Isaac Asimov book of the same name. Director Alex Proyas, who directed The Crow and did double writing/directing duty on the underrated Dark City (with David Goyer), delivers across the board.

The action scenes are huge and the robots look incredible, thanks to amazing work by visual effects supervisor John Nelson (who won an Academy Award for his work on Gladiator). Production designer Patrick Tatopoulos (Pitch Black, ID4, Stargate, Dark City) creates a smartly realized world for Nelson’s creations to play in. (One action sequence involving a giant piece of robotic construction equipment will make every person who ever owned a Transformers toy weak in the knees when that thing raises up on its haunches.)

The robot character of Sonny is a Gollum-good CGI creation whose performance is based on the voice and expressions of actor Alan Tudyk, whom genre fans will remember as Wash Warren from Firefly. (Tudyk is reprising the role in the upcoming Firefly feature film Serenity.) Sonny has emotions, and the combination of CGI and Tudyk’s acting is executed flawlessly. All too often films rely on CGI as a crutch, but this one accomplishes a miracle through the remarkable creation of Sonny.

This is also one of Will Smith’s best performances; there are two emotional scenes that he particularly nails. In the first he attempts to explain his theory to Dr. Calvin, and in the second one we learn the truth behind his hatred and distrust of robots. He’s physically awesome in the film’s stunts and action sequences and, as always, his comedic timing and delivery are never anything short of perfect or natural. He’s excellent here, but it’s those two dramatic scenes that you’ll be remembering most after the credits start rolling.

Bridget Moynahan was excellent opposite Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears and almost stole the show from Colin Farrell and Al Pacino in The Recruit. In I, Robot, as the mystery slowly unravels and everything that Dr. Calvin believes in is called into question, the gorgeous Moynahan hangs right in there with Smith to do some really exceptional dramatic work.

Chi McBride is particularly good as Spooner’s boss, Lt. Bergin. The talented character actor is always a great screen presence and is blessed with a very well-written character here. Bruce Greenwood, a fan-favorite actor who’s starred in dozens of memorable TV and film roles, is note-perfect as Robertson, while James Cromwell brings much gravity to the small but pivotal role of Dr. Lanning.

Smart, unpredictable, strongly acted and visually exciting, this film is an excellent futuristic mystery thriller in the vein of Minority Report but with a lot more action and humour. I, Robot? I, loved it.