Neil Young’s Film Lounge – I, Robot

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

I, ROBOT 5/10

USA 2004 : Antoine FUQUA : 115 mins

Chicago, 2035. Robots are part of daily urban life, their integration smoothed by the fact that all are hard-wired to conform to the Three Laws of Robotics which prevent robots from harming humans. Most are built and supplied by a mega-corporation which is preparing to replace the standard-issue NS-4 android with the more humanoid NS-5. On the eve of the “roll-out”, however, the company’s veteran visionary Dr Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell) falls to his death from his office’s high window. Suicide? “Robot-phobic” Detective Del Spooner (Will Smith) suspects murder – and discovers a plausible culprit in the metallic form of a super-advanced NS-5 designed by Lanning and named ‘Sonny’ (voiced by Alan Tudyk). With aid of robot-expert Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), Spooner finds Sonny has special modifications which mean he isn’t bound by the Three Laws. But determining Sonny’s “guilt” or “innocence” soon becomes a secondary issue when fellow NS-5s turn out to have full-scale revolution on their electronic minds…

Though officially “suggested by” the stories of sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov, director Proyas and his scripwriters (Jeff Vintar and Oscar-winning Akiva A Beautiful Mind Goldsman) retain only Asimov’s catchy title and the ‘Three Laws’ concept. Their main sources are, instead, Minority Report, The Terminator, Blade Runner, The Matrix and that hardy sub-genre of films which feature robots who desperately want to be human: a clanking lineage that stretches back through Bicentennial Man and Star Trek‘s Data to The Wizard of Oz‘s Tin Man.

But Vintar and Goldsman don’t bother to add in many new ideas of their own: there’s very little originality on view, and they awkwardly present Spooner’s anti-robot “prejudice” as a form of quasi-racism that’s supposedly ironic, given his own ethnicity. There are also some half-hearted attempts at Phil-Dickian philosophising along the familar “What does it mean to be human?” lines, with the hapless Moynahan (who played similarly thankless female-leads in The Sum of All Fears and The Recruit) saddled with the worst of the mumbo-jumbo-heavy dialogue. And why does she keep saying “In God’s name!” whenever anything goes wrong?

Thankfully, in the second hour these pretensions mostly fall away and we’re left with a derivative, often daft, occasionally laborious – but nonetheless thoroughly watchable slam-bang action-thriller in which Spooner implausibly defies death and gravity with impressive aplomb. Needless to say, the human performers are effortlessly upstaged by their CGI co-stars, with Tudyk and his off-screen “helpers” contributing easily the most impressive and convincing “performance” as the enigmatic Sonny – even if Tudyk’s voice does have more than a touch of Douglas Rain’s indelible HAL from 2001 : A Space Odyssey about it.

But the ‘old-school’ NS-4s are also terrific creations – mournful of visage and rusty of limb – and it’s quite distressing to see them being ruthlessly hunted down by their NS-5 ‘replacements’ in one of the numerous violent sequences which would surely guarantee I, Robot a prohibitive adults-only certificate if the participants were human. As it is, NS-4s and NS-5s endure all kinds of unpleasant demise without a drop of gore being spilt. And even when the “malevolent” NS-5s begin their revolt against their human “masters”, it turns out to be a bloodless kind of coup, despite initial expectations to the contrary. This isn’t because of squeamishness on the film-makers’ part: the final twist, when the ‘author’ of the NS-5’s reprogramming is revealed, turns out to make unexpectedly coherent conceptual sense for what had often seemed a lunk-headed, mechanical, NS-4 of a summer blockbuster.

30th July, 2004
(seen 27th July : Odeon, Newcastle-upon-Tyne : press show)

by Neil Young