A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 258 – I, Robot

I, Robot – November 13th, 1010

Tonight I asked Andy to pick me out a dumb action movie, because that’s what I was in the mood for. Now, I don’t know if it’s because I really was in the mood for dumb action, or if it’s because I’ve only ever brushed up against Asimov’s stories, never gotten into them (I got sucked into Niven’s stuff for sci-fi, sorry), or maybe I’m still sick and that’s doing something to my mind. But I didn’t hate this. Oh, I’ve got problems with it, but I didn’t hate it. Don’t worry, I won’t try to defend it. But I am going to try and figure out why it is that it’s so universally lambasted and yet I rather enjoyed watching it.

So, problems first. I’ve got two major ones and neither one of them is the plot. The plot has minor problems in comparison. My major problems are the horrific product placement shoehorned into the movie (haha, shoehorned – see what I did there?) and the totally pointless comic relief character played by Shia LaBeouf. Product placement first. It is egregious to say the least. The very worst of it is the Converse placement. Now, I have no problems with Converse sneakers. I like them myself and had several pairs in high school. But there is no way I needed that much attention paid to a pair of them in this movie. They’re a recognizable brand. It’s not like they needed Will Smith putting his foot up on a chair and proclaiming his vintage 2004 Converse All Stars to be like the second coming. How much did Converse pay for that? And were they ticked at how very obvious it was? I expect product placement in movies. I kind of look for it, because I like to know when I’m being sold something. So cars, billboards, soda, I know that will all be in there. I do not expect the movie to pause for a commercial without actually pausing.

Now, I suppose that given how soon this was after Holes it’s possible that Mr. LaBeouf’s involvement could be said to be product placement for him as an actor, and given his later casting in the Transformer movies, mission accomplished? I’m utterly serious here. His character has no real point in the overall scheme of things in this movie. He shows up what, twice? And both of those appearances are, at most, to give Will Smith’s character a little bit of dialogue and flavor. It is nothing that couldn’t be accomplished with the rest of the cast. It’s not like we need to see the guy telling some random kid to stop acting like a fool. It adds nothing. And yet there he is, tossing a basketball at Smith and heading up the crowd of humans during the riot at the climax. My theory is that his agent got him into the film somehow as a bid to try and make him marketable in more action-oriented roles. I’ve got nothing against the guy, really. But his character in this movie is as superfluous as the All Stars.

The reason those things are my major problems with the movie are that they are bizarre distractions. Yes, the plot has holes. Yes, it has logical flaws. No, it is not really based on Asimov’s books, as indicated by the “suggested by” credit given to him. But for all its high talk about the soul and emotion and having a purpose, it’s a dumb action movie about robots rising up against humans. I don’t really expect it to be intellectually stimulating. It’s not actually Asimov, after all. And if I’m going to watch a dumb sci-fi action movie I expect a couple of things. I expect good special effects. I expect some worldbuilding to set me in the future. I expect a baddie who has way more power than he or she should have. I expect the hero to be fighting against insurmountable odds. And well, this movie delivers all of that. And then it goes and has all this crap muddying it up and that just ticks me off.

Now, normally I like Will Smith, and I did enjoy him in this movie, but I’ve got to say that this isn’t my favorite of his roles (that would be Hancock). His character is actually the weakest part of the movie for me, aside from the stuff I talked about above. The problem is that his motivations are poorly stated and unclear, his background is hinted at but never given much solid stuff to work with and his character takes these odd turns where he seems to be setting something up and then isn’t. Now, none of this is Smith’s fault. Detective Spooner is written that way and there’s not a hell of a lot one can do when one’s given lines about an ex-wife and said ex-wife never shows. It’s an example of Chekhov’s Gun never getting fired. Spooner’s boss, the police chief? Fine. He plays Spooner’s spoiler, having to reign him in for perfectly reasonable issues even though we as the audience know that Spooner’s right. Dr. Calvin, the movie’s female lead and Spooner’s eventual teammate in taking down the baddie? I actually really like her. Bridget Moynahan does a good job taking her from antagonistic to sympathetic to enthusiastic without taking her from shrew to mommy to girlfriend.

In fact, I’d like to make an aside here and give this movie an unreserved high five for not making Spooner and Calvin romantically involved but also keeping Calvin a sympathetic and likable character. Good fucking job, movie!

Okay, back to the plot and characters. As I said, I like the good guys. And I like the bad guys too. Once I got past seeing Bruce Greenwood not as Captain Pike (and stopped laughing at this movie having Aaron Douglas on the side of the robot-makers, given his role in BSG) I thought he did a good job as the main antagonist, even if his role in it all is one of the movie’s holes. And I really liked the movie’s enigma, Sonny, as played by Alan Tudyk. And yes, I count him as having played Sonny entirely, given the motion capture process used for the character. I love Alan Tudyk, and I think he did a great job with Sonny. And when it comes to the plot, he drives a good deal of it. So it’s too bad that Spooner’s so ill-defined, because he drives the rest and a lot of the time he seems to be fishing for something, anything, please!

The bigger issues in the movie, with the robots rising up and the nature of the soul and whatnot, well. They’ve all been done. Probably by Asimov, but personally I’ve seen a hell of a lot of it done in Star Trek (see all of Data’s character arc), Battlestar Galactica and Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex. And all of those did a lot more meandering through the topic in greater depth, partially because as series, two of which are focused precisely on said topic, they had more leisure to do so. But also because they weren’t trying to deliver an action thriller to summer blockbuster movie audiences and sell sneakers and up-and-coming actors while doing so. If the movie had maybe skipped on the selling products and sold me on Spooner’s character background instead maybe the movie would have been more solid and I could feel better about having enjoyed it. Because really, despite it all, I did.

November 13, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | 6 Comments

I, Robot

November 13, 2010

I, Robot

This is the movie that showed me that even a great director can somehow end up making bad movies. I’ve talked before about my love for Alex Proyas. Dark City is one one of my favorite movies of all time. The Crow is awesome fun, and I can’t wait to watch it again. I was even pleasantly surprised by Knowing. There is no way, however, that this movie can be construed as anything but a bad, bad movie. How I wish I could say otherwise.

I did enjoy some of Isaac Asimov’s robot stories. They’re all sci-fi mysteries that can be solved if you understand the premise that the logical choices made under duress by the robots made perfect sense to them but didn’t seem to make sense to humans. They’re cool thought experiments about the difference between rational thought and common sense. But how do you make a big budget effects laden Will Smith movie about a clever thought experiment? Sadly, the answer is: you don’t. Or at least, even if it can be done this is not it.

Instead this is a clumsily written boondoggle “suggested by” Asimov. I postulated two “twist” endings to this movies based on the previews, which I saw about seven hundred times while working at Suncoast. One of them was right. I really should not be able to guess a movie’s entire plot arc from the previews. But that’s the sort of movie this is.

This movie also features some of the most notoriously awful product placements of all time. Particularly the Converse bits. When I think product placements in movies I think of this movie, Wayne’s World and Demolition Man. In that order. There’s the FedEx robot, the almost ridiculous love granted to Will Smith’s “vintage 2004” shoes and the many, many shots of the Audi logo on his futuristic car. It’s rare that you see product placement so blatant and poorly done that it throws you so violently out of the movie.

Smith plays detective Del Spooner, a man with some bizarre hatred for all robot-kind. Everybody knows that robots are incapable of doing any harm to humans, and everybody knows that Spooner is a crazy nut-case who thinks robots harbor some secret plot or actually can be made somehow to do harm. (I had to stop my brain working when his commander in the police force asks him “How many robots in the world have ever committed a crime?” and my immediate thought was “couldn’t a robot be ordered to smash open a bank vault and steal all the money as long as it didn’t harm any human being in the commission of the crime?” The movie just doesn’t go in that direction.) When the genius designer who created the three laws and pretty much invented the robots of this world dies under suspicious circumstances Spooner gets involved. He also meets the pretty but emotionally cold Susan Calvin.

A quick note about the wardrobe that Bridget Moynahan gets to wear as Calvin: it’s awesome. All constructed from different shades of gray with nifty color blocking. Indeed most of the production design in this movie is great from the costumes to the cars to the robots themselves. (Product placement notwithstanding.) The next-gen robots of the film all share a sort of semi-translucent look that reminds me of the iMacs from around 1999. Very nifty.

Of course there actually IS some kind of conspiracy that involves robots, and Spooner and Calvin get caught up in it. There are a whole lot of scenes involving robots attacking Spooner, his car, a house he’s in, the police department, the entire human race… stuff like that.

For all its faults I will say that this movie does have a lot of great special effects. The armies of robots depicted throughout the film are all CGI creations, and the’re blended perfectly with their human co-stars. Alan Tudyk gives an Andy Serkis-style performance where he was motion captured and digitally replaced with the mysterious rogue robot Sunny. (Amanda mentioned while watching this that she wished Alan could have appeared as himself in a dual role, which would have been fun because he’s a funny guy and always enjoyable to watch.) There are a couple very complex and physically impossible swooping camera shots that are used to pump up the action. Indeed as a completely silly Will Smith action movie this whole thing actually works pretty well. I just wish it didn’t have the I, Robot connection.

I don’t know. I have issues with a lot in this movie. It holds absolutely no similarity to the I, Robot stories in tone or attitude. It features an implausible premise (with a single corporation holding an absolute monopoly on robot manufacture.) It has the feel at times of being more a commercial for sneakers than a serious movie. And it just doesn’t feel worthy of Alex Proyas – with whom I associate more cerebral or at least stylish fare. But it has some fun action, and some sort of standard witty action-movie banter. We put it in tonight because Amanda was in the mood for a “stupid action movie” and it perfectly fits that bill. Maybe I’m just too hard on it. I’d recommend, however, that if you’re looking for a cool sci-fi mystery with a premise about over-mechanization you should watch Surrogates instead.

November 13, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment