I, ROBOT - DVD review

Nobody is going to mistake this future noir for Spielberg's Minority Report, but for a light-headed adrenaline rush, it works pretty well.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today--but the core of science fiction, its essence, the concept around which it revolves, has become crucial to our salvation, if we are to be saved at all." --Isaac Asimov

American author and biochemist Isaac Asimov did not invent robots or stories about robots, but he did help to popularize them and to codify their fictional behavior. His 1950 collection of short stories, "I, Robot," has been the template for robotic conduct for over half a century and has influenced practically every novel, short story, and movie about robots ever since.

Asimov invented what he called the now-famous "Three Laws of Robotics":
"One, a robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. Two, a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. Three, a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws."

So, what does any of this have to do with the 2004 summer blockbuster, "I, Robot," starring summer blockbuster favorite Will Smith? Well, there's Asimov's title. And the three laws. And there are robots. And robots. And more robots.

However, despite the increased silliness of the plot as the story goes along, in its first half the movie develops as a nifty mystery thriller, and in its second half the special effects replace logic and common sense to produce a fairly entertaining piece of weightless fluff. Nobody is going to mistake this future noir for Spielberg's "Minority Report," but for a light-headed adrenaline rush, it works pretty well.

The setting for the story is Chicago in the year 2035. It's near enough in the future that the filmmakers don't have to go too wild with their imaginations inventing things. On the other hand, a lot of the visible landscape and props appear remarkably like our own. Matte paintings and CGI magic transform today's Chicago into a city several decades in the future, but a few inconsistencies remain. Alarm clocks, television sets, and electric fans look pretty much as they do now, something I would seriously doubt. The main character wears vintage 2004 Converse All-Star tennis shoes, which he prizes, although there is no indication how or why he got them brand-new. Electronic equipment abounds in everybody's office, but hard metal and plastic furniture seems too uncomfortable to sit in. And the silver Audi automobile of the future the main character drives is suspiciously like my own silver 350Z. Oh, well, I quibble. Their cars float on air. Say, now that I think of it, doesn't mine?

Will Smith plays homicide detective Del Spooner, a typical movie cop who mopes around his apartment like Steve McQueen in "Bullitt," has an attitude like Richard Roundtree in "Shaft," and dresses like Denzel Washington in "Training Day." His commanding officer barks at him constantly, and, of course, he eventually has his badge taken away from him for disobeying orders. As though these clichés weren't enough, Smith's performance is more laid back than usual and his witticisms are less frequent than they were in, say, "ID4" or "Men in Black." He seems caught between trying to play his character straight or for mild laughs. Since the movie is mostly straight drama, he goes for the former, but the script is so far out he has little room for much seriousness. So he straddles a tightrope and only occasionally falls off into melodrama or unintentional humor.

The world of 2035 is served by robots, manufactured by the U.S. Robotics Corporation, whose head is Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood), the richest man in the world. Shades of Bill Gates. The robots are programmed to follow the three laws cited above, so they cannot, under any circumstance, hurt a human. And everything is controlled by a central computer called V.I.K.I., for Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence, which cannot allow any mischief among the robots anywhere. Yet, when the father of robotics, Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), is found dead from a high fall in the central foyer of the USR headquarters building, Spooner is not so certain it's the suicide it appears to be. Spooner is suspicious of robots in general, having a long-standing prejudice against them verging on paranoia. He believes that robots may have had something to do with Lanning's death.

No one else is buying it, though. Not Robertson, not Spooner's superior, Lt. Bergin (Chi McBride), and not the beautiful psychiatrist for USR, Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), whose job it is to program the robots to make them seem more human. Why are all female doctors and scientists in the movies beautiful? And why does Bridget Moynahan remind me of Sandra Bullock?

Here's the thing: The U.S. Robotics Corp. is trying to replace all their outmoded NS-4 model robots with new NS-5 models, the newer creations being smarter and more human appearing. The company believes that before the end of the year, there will be one new NS-5 "for every five humans." Every five humans in Chicago? In the United States? In the world? I dunno.

In any case, Spooner starts to investigate, and before long he's engaged in a full-fledged mystery adventure. This part of the story develops with some good suspense, as Spooner finds the clues adding up to something more than suicide. He even finds that an NS-5 robot (Alan Tudyk) who calls himself "Sonny" may be involved in the case, a robot with surprisingly humanlike emotions. (Among other things, the robot claims to dream.) Unfortunately, there is in the first half of the movie more than a little of the old "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" element, too, in that the more Spooner uncovers about the involvement of robots in a gigantic conspiracy, the more nobody will believe him. It's cute and clever at first, but it begins to grate after a while. And the idea of Lanning having fallen from the window of a locked room seems a plot device that's a bit threadbare.

Director Alex Proyas ("The Crow," "Dark City") manages to keep all of the script's preposterousness at bay long enough for the story to move along at a pretty healthy clip without our noticing the stereotypes and banalities very much, especially in the initial mystery part. Then, a few good chase scenes, an attack by a thirty-foot demo-bot, and a concluding battle with a multitude of robots liven up the proceedings.

Some of the computer effects work, some don't. The robots, especially the NS-5's, look good and move and walk as we might anticipate such machines to operate. But, then, some parts of the future city look slightly unreal and unconvincing, often cars at a distance look unreal, and occasionally even CGI background people look unreal. Technology has its limits.

Spooner's relationship with Dr. Calvin is among the movie's highlights, although it is not a romantic involvement. Spooner calls Calvin "the dumbest smart person" he's ever met, and Calvin calls Spooner "the dumbest dumb person" she's ever met. It's not exactly love, or even like, at first sight. Nevertheless, the actors work well together, and while neither character is very well drawn or has much depth, both Smith and Moynahan interact on a reasonably intelligent level.

I also liked the "Blade Runner" angle, with Spooner tracking down a possibly rogue robot or two, or a thousand, as well as the "Blade Runner" dark tone at times. Maybe the movie tries to go in too many directions at once and never finds its footing as a thriller or a light satire, but the end result is still pleasing to the eye and at least partially satisfying to the brain. It's respectable entertainment. What more can I say?

The video is just about as good as it gets. The transfer is anamorphic, enhanced for widescreen, and measures a ratio approximately 2.09:1 across my standard-screen HD television. The bit rate is high, so the picture quality is stable, colors are deep and solid, and definition is excellent. Facial tones are as perfect as one could want them to be, depth of image is reasonably good, and black levels are intense. There are a few flickering lines here and there, hardly noticeable. Because the film was photographed with a good deal of back and side lighting, the overall image can sometimes appear a trifle bright; but this condition is undoubtedly inherent to the original print, not the transfer. Until high definition arrives, I'd say this is about the best live-action video reproduction one can obtain; and I can't deny the disc's picture quality may have been at least partially responsible for my liking the film itself as much as I did.

We have come to expect better audio than video processing these days, but in this case, the audio and the video are just about equal. The choices for the English track are Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1, with the DD 5.1 that I listened to sounding terrific. It's just what you'd expect from a blockbuster movie; namely, big, big sound. The bass is deep, the dynamics are strong, the front-channel stereo spread is wide, and the directionality in all five channels is impressive. There is an abundance of aural effects in the surrounds--gunfire, explosions, flying debris, voices, the usual--that adds to the overall visceral excitement of the story, effectively putting the listener into the midst of the action.

This release is not a special edition or anything, so expect an ordinary complement of bonus materials. Given the disc's high bit rate and both Dolby Digital and DTS audio tracks, it's a wonder there's room left for any extras at all. There is, of course, the mandatory audio commentary by the director, Alex Proyas, along with screenwriter Akiva Goldsman. Then, there is a twelve-minute featurette, "The Making of I, Robot," a typical promotional item with the filmmakers; a still gallery; "Inside Looks" at Fox's "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," "Robots," and "Elektra"; and a trailer for Fox's "Arrested Development." To conclude the lineup, there are a generous thirty-nine scene selections; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English and Spanish subtitles.

The keep case with its own interior artwork is housed in a light-plastic transparent/translucent slipcover with additional cover art. No informational or chapter insert came with my package.

Parting Thoughts:
I'm not sure what I expected from "I, Robot." I suppose I was hoping for something closer to Asimov's stories, but I was also dreading another mindless "Armageddon." What I got was a combination of both, with enough suspense in the movie's opening half and enough action in the second half to keep my mind and senses occupied. OK, Will Smith may be on autopilot, but the movie still beats the endless tedium of its summer competition, things like "Van Helsing" or "King Arthur." In the end, I rather liked "I, Robot" and look forward to watching it again


Film Value