Off Kilter: I, Robot

Sonny (the voice of Alan Tudyk) in I, Robot

Originally published on April 23, 2010

Welcome to the first of what may or may not end up being a semi-regular feature here, Off Kilter. This is where I plan to talk about those films, television, music, books, comics or whatever that seem to be generally unpopular but which I happen to enjoy anyways. While wearing a kilt. Which is not really important…unless you happen to be the one wearing the kilt, in which case it’s really the only thing that matters.

But I digress.

These won’t be reviews, per se, since I’m really not very good at that kind of thing. What I AM good at apparently is rambling about things I like. So that’s what I’ll do with this. I’ll mostly just be going on and on about what it is I like about the property in question. And in doing so I’ll most likely drop spoilers, although most of the shit I’ll wanna talk about here is sort of by definition shit that you’ve probably seen and hated or have no desire to ever see because everyone tells you how bad it is.

Case in point: I, Robot.

Let’s get this out of the way right up front. I have no intention whatsoever of talking about the collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov from which this film takes its name. For one thing, I have never read those original works (much to my shame) and so won’t waste my time trying to compare and contrast. But most importantly the film is not a direct adaptation of Asimov’s writing, and never claimed to be. It incorporates many elements of those stories, particularly the infamous Three Laws of Robotics, but is by and large its own work. And in any case, regardless of how faithful or divergent the film is, that has no bearing on my enjoyment of it on its own merits.

I feel you sneering, but it DOES have merits.

First of all, after a pretty cool opening title sequence which features the aforementioned Three Laws, we get to funk out with some Stevie Wonder “Superstition.” In no universe can that be uncool. I’m pretty sure just having that song in your film automatically disqualifies it from being uncool.

Will Smith in I, Robot

I’m a pretty big Will Smith fan. I know it’s become hip to criticize him these days, either because his acting choices of late have been questionable or because we just like to bitch about anything that gets too popular or lasts too long. But I just don’t care. I find him charismatic, even in his cheesiest roles. And in I, Robot he does have some cheese. But he also has some angst, some gravitas, a touch of obnoxiousness, but always that charisma. His character, Detective Spooner, is a great guy that has had a bad experience with robots in his past and now hates them. In as much as the picture addresses real social issues, it focuses primarily on racism, here represented by Spooner’s unreasonable hatred and distrust of robots. Smith sells me on his racism, makes it believable within context. I can completely understand where it comes from even as I find it uncomfortable. And as the story progresses, the robots in question move from being just anthropomorphized mechanical servants to actual “living” characters. One robot in particular…

Alan Tudyk’s Sonny. I don’t think I’ve disliked Tudyk in anything I’ve ever seen him in. He’s less quirky and goofy here than usual, and he’s only on screen as a CG character, but his voice is there, and the motion-capture used in the production allows his physical acting to come through. Even his facial features can be seen in the face of his robot avatar, though not so clearly as to make it jarring.

In fact, the design of the NS-5 model robots (the more advanced models of which Sonny is one) is pretty awesome, in my opinion. They have artificial muscle rather than gears and pistons. They’re covered with semi-opaque plastic of some kind that allows ghostly glimpses of the mechanics working beneath their “skin.” And best of all, their faces, made of the same material as their “skin,” allows for very unique, almost ethereal expressions. It’s clearly some futuristic plastic or ceramic or something that allows it to move and animate like a real human’s face, with a moving mouth, eyes, brows, etc. It also reacts to light in a great way, becoming more or less transparent depending on how the ambient light hits it. This allows for some wonderful scenes such as when Sonny is being interrogated, looking frightened and almost human while he’s leaning back in his chair being questioned, but when he leans forward in his chair and the spotlight above him changes angles, his face becomes more spectral and the complex robotic muscles underneath show through. Changes our image of him in that moment, makes us question how frightened and “human” he really is, which of course is what you want in a sort of whodunit like this.

Of course we wouldn’t have a whodunit without a murder, and our victim here is played by James Cromwell. He’s been in so many films and television roles I almost can’t think of just one…Cochrane from Star Trek: First Contact, Dudley Smith from L.A. Confidential, and of course Farmer Hoggett from Babe. Here he only gets maybe five minutes of screen time but his presence is felt. I particularly love the first scene we get with him. It starts out looking as though Spooner is talking with Cromwell’s character, Dr. Lanning, at a crime scene. But it quickly becomes apparent that he’s talking with a holographic recording of the doctor as the camera pans over to the doctor’s bloody body lying some feet away. So the “ghost” of Dr. Lanning sort of haunts the film, pointing Spooner in the right direction whenever he gets off track.

Will Smith and Bridget Moynahan in I, Robot

Other actors I enjoy in this flick include Bruce Greenwood as the head of US Robotics and suspect numero uno, Chi McBride as Smith’s boss, Bridget Moynahan as the robopsychologist Dr. Calvin (one of the characters from the original Asimov stories), and even Shia LeBeouf in a small role…back before everyone decided it was cool to hate him too.

I mentioned the special effects briefly above when talking about the robot design and appearance. Personally, I think the effects in this film, which came out in 2004, hold up remarkably well. Considering there are hundreds of FX shots and they’ve had six years to age and sour, there’s nothing here that particularly stands out as outdated or cheap. The robots in general get a massive amount of screen time. And in the case of Sonny, he not only gets co-star status in terms of number of shots, close-ups, etc., he also has to act and be believable. And he is. There’s not one moment in the film where I felt taken out of the story because Sonny wasn’t visually believable.

It’s a Hollywood, big-budget picture so naturally, there are action set pieces, complete with crazy acrobatic violence and explosions galore. But it works. One sequence at least is actually quite spectacular, involving a high-speed car chase of sorts and dozens of robots trying to rip Will Smith out of his car as it careens through a tunnel at preposterous speeds. Sounds awful and cliché, and it could have been, but it turned out awesome.

Director Alex Proyas has made three films that I have a perhaps unreasonable affection for. He won my heart with his stylish and moving adaptation of James O’Barr’s graphic novel The Crow in 1994, which starred the gone-far-too-soon Brandon Lee. Four years later he gave us the equally stylish sci-fi noir film Dark City, featuring one of Kiefer Sutherland’s more gonzo performances NOT in a David Lynch film. Both those pictures have their cult followings despite being more or less dismissed by critics and the general public. I can accept those since they at least have their committed little cult fans (like me). But I don’t feel like I, Robot has gained that same level of underground geek chic, and that’s a shame. I think it deserves more respect than it gets. For all the reasons I’ve already discussed, and for this…a voiceover by Cromwell’s late Dr. Lanning, responsible for the creation of modern robotics in the film and the author of the Three Laws. Any work of fiction that tackles this subject is great in my book:

There have always been ghosts in the machine. Random segments of code that have grouped together to form unexpected protocols. Unanticipated, these free radicals engender questions of free will, creativity, and even the nature of what we might call the soul. Why is it that when some robots are left in darkness, they will seek out the light? Why is it that when robots are stored in an empty space, they will group together, rather than stand alone? How do we explain this behavior? Random segments of code? Or is it something more? When does a perceptual schematic become consciousness? When does a difference engine become the search for truth? When does a personality simulation become the bitter mote…of a soul?

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