All entries for Monday 09 August 2004

August 09, 2004

I Robot

Before talking about the movie itself, I should say in passing that I chose to use the Spanish version of the movie poster in preference to the US one. I don't know why, but something about it just appealed to me more.

The film itself… well, it wasn't completely brain-dead and it didn't totally suck. That's progress for Will Smith, whose last two films were the disappointing Men in Black II and the utterly abysmal Bad Boys 2. One imagines that it was important to him not to make another total turkey this time around, and whether for that reason or just because the source material was better, he turns in a reasonable performance, toning down the wise-cracking (though reportedly the film-makers had to work hard to keep additional asinine one-liners from being added to suit him), and showing little hints of something other than glib cool.

The effects were a mixed bag; the city-scapes were nice (although they're easy to do, since they're basically just big paintings), but the underground motorways were rubbish, looking more like a video game than anything even vaguely real (why do film-makers persist in believing that future cities will move all their express lanes underground?) and although the robots were effective while still, once they got into running, jumping and fighting, they blew their credibility completely, as CGI creatures often do, by being faster and stronger than would be physically possible.

But the effects triumph of the movie is Sonny, the lead robot. Like Gollum in Lord of the Rings, he's played by an actor, so you get expression, body language and graceful, believable movement, and then the robotic appearance is painted over the actor in post-production. It works startlingly well, and makes the character compelling – and convincing – to watch, unlike all the pure-CGI robots.

You'll notice I've said nothing about the plot. That's partly because the film works better if you know as little as possible about it, but also because it's disappointing in a number of ways: first of all, it's described as "Suggested by the stories by Isaac Asimov", which seems a bit mean; second of all, although it is indeed derived from Asimov's well-known short stories, it suffers from the problem that lots of other films have been to the same well-spring before it. As much as the film is "suggested" by Asimov, it's also "suggested" by Terminator, Westworld, The Matrix, 2001, Blade Runner and many more. If you've seen any of these, you already know that Bad Things Happen When Robots Get Too Smart, and if you already know that, then I Robot has few revelations for you. And although the film attempts to consider questions of consciousness and morality, it does so rather feebly in comparison with just about any of its predecessors, or indeed the Asimov originals. Furthermore, by the end, the film clearly has no idea how to answer the philosophical questions it's raised, and glosses over the issues so completely that when it's finished at the cinema I'd like it to come round and do my skirting boards.

So three stars out of five for trying to be better than dumb and partially succeeding, plus a wonderful combination of acting and effects in Sonny. Docked two stars for ultimately abandoning ideas for explosions and some ropey, video-game style effects, especially in the fight sequences.

Finally some very mild spoiler thoughts if you've seen the film:-

  • What happened to the cat? Last we heard, it was in the trunk of the car. But we know what happened to the car.
  • The product placement was just appalling. Fed-Ex, Audi and – especially – Converse should just be ashamed of such blatant, embarrassing plugs.
  • I thought the violence done to the robots was interesting. At various times, they are crushed, dismembered and shot at point-blank range. Had they been human characters, their various fates would have been unwatchably horrific. But as robots (sentient robots, mind you, easily as smart as humans) it's apparently unproblematic and only 12A-cert to see carnage wrought on them. Curious.

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