For a pretty standard sci-fi story, "I, Robot" sure holds a person's interest--especially in 1080p eye-popping HD.
That's because it's also a police procedural that begins when Chicago detective Del Spooner (Will Smith, in one of his more matter-of-fact, natural-feeling roles) is summoned to a crime scene in the year 2035 at the city's tallest building: the corporate headquarters of U.S. Robotics, with its imposing stone robots flanking the building like ominous guards.
It wasn't a phone call that brought him there. It was a message from the victim himself, USR co-founder Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), whose hologram engages the detective in a Q&A while his body lies there on the floor behind them.
Lanning, you see, was the creator of the robots that this corporation sells worldwide. His death comes at an inconvenient (or is it convenient?) time, because the company's new campaign vows to put a robot in every home. They're also hawking a massive offer to replace everyone's NS-4 model with the newest NS-5--so what, are monopoly and anti-trust laws defunct in the not-so-distant future? Lanning is the one who, as in the Isaac Asimov fiction that "suggested" this screenplay, came up with the three rules for robots that are hardwired into every one of their artificial brains:
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 by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law, and 3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection doesn't conflict with the First or Second Law.
And therein lies a slight problem. One gets the feeling that if the doctor had made it a full 10 commandments for biomechanical beings, maybe everything wouldn't play out so simply. We know fairly early that there's something up with this new line of NS-5s and that USR CEO Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood) is up to no good. While the script by Jeff Vintar isn't devoid of mystery, there aren't a whole lot of twists, turns, or surprising reveals that we can't anticipate. But that doesn't make "I, Robot" a bust. On the contrary, it leaves the film to play out a little like a "Columbo" episode, where the fun isn't trying to figure out a complex case, but in watching the detective hunt down the killer. Or, in this case, also vice versa. The biggest mystery isn't the whodunit that starts the plot in motion, but recurring nightmares that Det. Spooner has involving a robot and the occupants of a car underwater--something that's evoked in the title sequence background imagery.
Every movie cop needs a sidekick or somebody to react to--even loners--and that bill is filled by Bridget Moynahan, who plays Dr. Susan Calvin, a psychologist who helps make the robots more human and who gives the detective a tour of the building that turns into a semi-tour of duty for her. We're not far into the film before the first threat emerges, and a robot who later identifies himself as Sonny (voiced by Alan Tudyk) jumps out from hiding in the late Dr. Lanning's office and disappears out the window that Lanning supposedly launched himself from in a suicide attempt. Sonny's true nature becomes the focus of the film, and while we have a pretty good idea of what's going to happen next, we're not absolutely sure.
"I, Robot" was nominated for a Best Achievement in Visual Effects Oscar, and there isn't a frame that goes by when you don't marvel at the production design or the special effects--one especially memorable scene coming when two trucks full of robots try to eradicate Det. Spooner during a high-speed drive down the Chicago freeways, the tunnels of which look convincingly futuristic. And the robots themselves look awfully good, with a palpable realism that brings the future closer.
Not all of the elements are futuristic, though. Spooner's superior, Lt. John Bergin (Chi McBride) seems like every gruff no-nonsense "I'll have your ass on a platter" police chief that's dogged every maverick cop since "Dirty Harry," and moments when Spooner interacts with his Granny seem absolutely rooted in today's culture. But such elements add a familiarity that helps us connect on a visceral level with Spooner and a world where robots are as common on the streets as people--walking dogs, hauling trash, and running errands for the humans that own them.
And of course, no review of a futuristic/sci-fi film would be complete without some mention of the production designer, since so much rests on our willingness to believe that what we're seeing is indeed a fast-forward. I think Patrick Tatopoulos deserves some applause, though he didn't earn an Oscar nomination. Same with director Alex Proyas ("The Crow"), who manages just the right tone and pacing, while presiding over some awesome effects. As much as the performers in this film who help to sell it, the robots cam make this a hit or miss movie. And they're a hit.
Though there's a slight graininess in some scenes, one suspects that it's a director's decision, and for the most part "I, Robot" looks remarkable in 1080p HD--especially in the FX scenes. What you notice most is that pleasing 3-dimensionality that comes from some of the better Blu-ray releases because of finer edge detail, and that detail is confirmed in close-ups on the faces of both robots and humans. Colors are superbly saturated, so that the nuances of cold-steel robotics and the warmth of humans come across equally well. It's a nice transfer, too, at 25mbps.
The English DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio does a fine job of distributing a dynamic soundtrack, noticeable especially during high-danger scenes with all those gunshots, crashes, and explosions. There's a nice balance between special effects, dialogue, and music, too. Additional soundtracks are in Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English (CC), Spanish, Cantonese, and Korean.
How do I begin? Fox has been touting its Blu-ray bonus features lately, and I have to say that there's much to be praised here. A lot of it is user-friendly. But some of it, unfortunately, is not.
The options are accessible through the color buttons on your remote. Press red and it gives you a behind-the-camera features menu. Blue gives you a search index. Yellow is for trivia and notes. And Green is the commentary index. This is really cool, and on the plus side, when when you click on a color button the menu remains until you hit that button again. That allows you to toggle from one commentary to another, for example, or to see what bonus features appear as each new scene begins (since they're scene-specific, with the menu changing as the film progresses).
The downside is that you can't access the bonus features except through these color buttons--or at least I couldn't figure out a way. That means you have to be incredibly patient (which I was not) in order to even see what the range of bonus features was. When you click the red button, you'll get a behind-the-camera menu of features, but only ones that are specific to the scenes currently playing on the TV. As the scenes change, so do the features options. And I couldn't find an index, if there even was one, to just watch these bonus features all by their lonesome.
Other negatives are that the "bonus features" are sometimes so short that it's hardly worth the disruption of the film, while not all of them contain any commentary (go figure). Included among them are an alternate ending and production notes. But I couldn't even begin to tell you what or how many featurettes there are on this disc, because I frankly didn't have the patience to go through the entire film again. With no comprehensive index, you just have to watch the film and see what features pop up. How much better it would have been if there were, in addition to this option, a separate menu with a "play all" option?
The index, likewise, is a nifty thing, but when you click on s subject you get a list of times in the movie, not scenic descriptions, so I'm not sure how useful that is either.
The trivia track? Because the field is so narrow and short, you have to wait for sentences to finish as they pop up again in that field. And sometimes it isn't trivia either, but academic-style erudition. Again, my patience was tried.
Finally, the commentaries. There are three here: a director and screenwriter track, a legacy and design track, and a music score track. All three are pretty low-key, and average at best, and downright dull during some moments. It's possible to listen to a commentary while also playing with other bonus features, though when you click on something you get a disruption while the feature plays.
In the end, the bonus features are a mixed bag, with as a few too many negatives for Fox to be touting them so much. But I give them points for moving in the right direction.
For a sci-fi flick, "I, Robot" is pretty by-the-numbers, if you think about it. But the crisp action, the wonderful special effects, and Smith's believable performance make this one a keeper.