I, Robot (2004)

Starring: Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, Alan Tudyk

Directed by: Alex Proyas

Rating: 1 2 3 and a half

Will Smith as Detective Del Spooner in I, Robot

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Robots. We've seen Metropolis, Forbidden Planet and Bladerunner. We've seen Terminators 1, 2 and even 3 (for our sins). We've seen 2001: A Space Odyssey (actually that's a lie, I haven't: my dad told me it was long and boring so I've never bothered, but I know what happens). We've even seen Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey and AI (well, somebody had to). We know that robots can be both nasty and nice. That robots can be more human than humankind - or at least more humane. That robots, like any hunk of manmade junk, are capable of malfunctioning. And that once you get them started, they can't always be stopped. So do we really need another robot movie? Even if it does star Will Smith?

In I, Robot, jolly cheeky chappy Will Smith plays against type (a bit) as the retro, ultra-Luddite homicide detective Del Spooner, a kind of 1970s Beverley Hills Cop throwback stuck in Chicago in 2035. Spooner likes old fashioned clothes (Converse baseball boots are just one of the many in yer face product placements we're bombarded with in the first five minutes of the film), old fashioned music (which he plays on his old fashioned JVC stereo) and has an old fashioned motor bike that runs on (gasp!) gas. He's grumpy, aggressive and paranoid, he cracks cheesy one-liners that aren't actually very funny and he has a serious beef against robots. If robots were alive you'd call it racism, and even though they're not, it's still not a terribly endearing character trait.

Brash, confrontational and downright rude, Spooner's edgy attitood seems at odds with the sleek, grey, mechanical world of The Future, where all menial tasks are performed by humanoid robots and every other home comes complete with a deferent robotic Jeeves; where cars drive themselves and all machinery is voice-activated (and, presumably, where there are an awful lot of people on the dole, but let's not worry about that).

Spooner interrogates a suspect in I, Robot

So when an eminent scientist and robot genius dies, first suspect on Spooner's list is his robot buddy, Sonny (Alan Tudyk), despite the fact that robots are programmed to be incapable of harming a human being. Sonny, of course, is a far more appealing fellow than Spooner, his round blue eyes, bland CGI face, C3PO accent and earnest attempts to feel real emotions making him a convincing and really rather charming character.

Poor metal Sonny seems even more human when set beside robot psychiatrist Dr Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), who must help Spooner solve the crime. Her stern logical brain and lack of emotion may make her an excellent foil to Spooner's impetuosity, but they hardly endear her to the audience.

Spot the robot: Spooner, Dr Calvin and Sonny

Is Dr Calvin really a robot? we ask ourselves. Is Spooner? Is Sonny a nice robot or a nasty one, a T1000 or a T2000? Because the film recalls so many other robot movies, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking you know what's going to happen, and at times it seems as if the film is deliberately playing with our expectations (and I must admit I didn't see the final twist coming - even though it is, er, actually pretty bloody obvious).

Like all good robot films, I, Robot poses pertinent questions about what makes us human. We tend to think it's things like the ability to think, to make our own decisions, to feel and to love. But if robots, 'nothing but lights and clockwork' as Spooner believes, can learn to feel, can evolve emotionally until they're more humane than human beings, where does that leave us? Kind of confused in I, Robot, actually, where metaphysical concerns are soon swept aside in favour of lots of robot ass-kicking action, but the ambiguous ending does leave room for some interesting speculation.

<SPOILER>On the one hand, I, Robot takes its cue from the likes of Terminator and 2001: A Space Odyssey, in that the moment the robots evolve to the point of self-conscious autonomy is the moment the human race needs to start panicking. However, by mixing in ideas nicked from Bladerunner and AI, in which highly evolved robots actually prove to be superior to their human counterparts, I, Robot also suggests that the ultimate downfall of the human race may not come about because robots are stronger and meaner and colder and more intelligent, but because they are nicer, because they can work together and because, having struggled to achieve their humanity, they aren't about to throw it away lightly.</SPOILER>

Sonny goes undercover in I, Robot

So, do we need another robot movie? Hell, yes! In the wettest August on record (probably) a slick, stylish, fast-paced robot movie with an appealing and utterly sympathetic hero (oh, and Will Smith) is exactly what we need. The robots look good (I want one!), there are plenty of nice little touches in the futuristic scene setting (although it is a little drab, with none of the gothic darkness you'd expect or hope from The Crow and Dark City director Alex Proyas), the script is a bit ropey but raises the odd laugh and the plot isn't quite as obvious as you might think. It's never going to be a classic like Bladerunner, but for now, I, Robot will do very nicely.

  • Share on Tumblr