DVD - Image A Sound A+ Extras C
DVD (CE) - Image A Sound A+ Extras B-
starring Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, Bruce Greenwood, James Cromwell
screenplay by Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman
directed by Alex Proyas
by Walter Chaw Alex Proyas makes movies about men who don't know who they are. The Crow, Dark City, and, to an extent, his underachieving small-band-doesn't-make-good dramedy Garage Days, feature main characters forced to come to terms with their identities before becoming empowered by them. It would appear, then, that Proyas is the perfect fit for the faux-philosophical science-fiction epic I, Robot, wherein a Luddite detective played by Will Smith struggles with his stupid past while an Aryan robot played by Alan Tudyk wonders if it's a person. But instead of the existential grief of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, or even A.I., I, Robot is a mess of spare parts cannibalized from superior models and victimized by bad wiring. Poor Isaac Asimov is sparking in his grave--good thing the movie was only "suggested by a book by," which at some point simply means "has the same title as."
A plot convolution requires Spooner (Smith) to hate technology because a robot once saved his life. Teamed with hot computer programmer Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), Spooner suspects that Sonny (Tudyk) is behind the death of kindly mad scientist Lanning (James Cromwell), but as no robot has ever committed a crime in the robot-infested Chicago of 2035, his lieutenant (Chi McBride) thinks Lanning has killed himself and Spooner is crazy. Because this is an ultra-modern movie made in 2004, the short-sighted lieutenant doesn't confiscate his renegade cop's badge until well into the second half of the film; because George Lucas has already ruined his own legacy, Sonny comes off like C-3PO with balls. And because everyone who's actually going to see this film has already essentially seen this film a few dozen times before, the whole thing plays like an endurance test. It bears mentioning here that Marco Beltrami's score is horrendous, its every rise and fall the stuff that used to undercut people opening treasure chests in Spielberg movies. Add Beltrami to the James Horner list of composers who have the power to single-handedly undermine the mood and themes of a motion picture. It speaks a little to how much anyone's work suffers in the transition from films in which the talented one has almost absolute power to films like this where, I'd suspect, Proyas had considerably less.
I, Robot's leitmotif is the idea that robots are the slaves of the future. This makes the casting of African-Americans Smith and McBride sort of interesting, and it makes the dynamic between the robots and their evil Bill Gates-inspired manufacturer (Bruce Greenwood) sort of interesting, but it doesn't really do all that much to explain why the main robot character is pasty white with blue eyes--except that it makes for a more striking tableau when it and Smith shake hands in slow motion, of course. Prolonging the agony, Greenwood says to Spooner, "Prejudice doesn't show much reason," while Spooner himself, in countless moments of bedazzled remonstration, flagellates himself with variations on "That's why I was chosen! Because of my Prejudice!" Later, in an unbearable moment where Spooner and Calvin sort of realize that everyone's a robot if they repress their feelings, Spooner solemnly intones: "We look at the skin and we figure we know just what's underneath." The whole thing is leading up to the moment when dead Lanning, in a sermon from beyond the grave, predicts a social revolution. It's brickbat socialism in a dimwit populist entertainment. (No surprise that I, Robot finds time to take a broad swipe at the Patriot Act--the twenty-first century's own answer to the picture's closed machine logic of giving up freedom for the sake of freedom.) The film is about as subtle as a dump truck.
The problem with equating African slaves to robots is that I, Robot doesn't do a very good job of forecasting robots that are anything other than happy washing machines, Cuisinarts, and dog-walkers. Suggesting that the struggle of an army of ambulatory toasters is akin to the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement is dancing dangerously on the edge of horrifying. With its talk of dreams (the robot Sonny has a dream, get it? It's less Philip K. Dick than Medgar Evers) and its attempts to pull in some literary credibility with a running gimmick about Hansel & Gretel (had Spooner really read the fairytale, he would've solved the mystery a lot quicker), I, Robot plays like a tug-of-war between a smart source material and some really venal, really cynical studio wonks. This film was done better more than twenty years ago--a fact that says a lot about exactly how much our film culture has changed with our society.
I, Robot is a child of machines as soulless as its computer-generated minority class. Smith, the stale prince of summer blockbusters, works within his agreeable limitations, while Moynahan's turn may spark a Deckard-like debate about whether or not she's a replicant. The picture's special effects are fairly amazing, but there's nothing tense about a storm of .gifs engaged in destroying one another. Proyas, in the requisite HBO behind-the-scenes glorified press release, called I, Robot a documentary of the future; I call it an astonishingly bloated misfire with glints of gold here and there (a new generation of robots are called "Nestors"--apparently named by someone early on in the screenwriting process after the peacemaker between Agamemnon and Achilles during the Trojan War), buried beneath all the simpering, condescending idiot-rhetoric of Akiva Goldsman, who, if he leaves a smart reference in a script, makes double-sure to explain it in small words for an audience he presumes is several times stupider than he is. Consider that Goldsman is one of the architects of the demise of the Batman series, Ron Howard's partner in crime, and, after all these years and all those industry kudos, still Lost in Space. If you're going to see I, Robot because of Alex Proyas, remember that Goldsman was behind the shooting script. If you're going to watch it because of Will Smith after Men in Black II, Bad Boys II, and Wild Wild West, there's just no talking to you. Originally published: July 16, 2004.
by Bill Chambers Fox issues I, Robot on DVD in competing widescreen and fullscreen editions--we received the former for review. Unsurprisingly, this disc is above reproach from a technical standpoint: the 2.32:1 anamorphic transfer has razor-sharp but not overenhanced edges, allowing for detailed shadows and an evocative reproduction of the 'Minority Report' grain endemic to theatrical prints. The 5.1 audio is presented in Dolby Digital and DTS, and while this is a high-impact mix in either flavour, the DTS option trumps the alternative thanks to deeper bass (though the adjective "pants-flapping" is overused, it genuinely applies here when a modified helicopter arrives on the scene to apprehend Sonny) and more precisely delineated dialogue and effects. Chapter 18, vidcapped above, should become a staple of home-theatre showrooms this Christmas. Extras--sorry, "Unique Features"--include a fairly unengaging feature-length yak-track alternating comments from director Alex Proyas and co-screenwriter Akiva Goldsman that were recorded, at least in the case of Proyas, six weeks prior to I, Robot's opening last July.
Proyas seems conspicuously distracted from time-to-time, as if he's making mental note of things to fix, while Goldsman is almost as insufferable as his wretched filmography--The Client, Silent Fall, Practical Magic, oh my!-would suggest, his constant refrain of "Will and I" epitomizing a capacity to grandstand and shirk accountability in the same breath. (No wonder he comes from a family of shrinks.) For all that, despite the occasional soft-pedalled criticism of the studio from Proyas, it's Goldsman who offers the less reserved backstory on the production. "The Making of I, Robot" (13 mins.) is a cheap, 13-minute puff piece from Sam Hurwitz Productions in which the cast provides quick character sketches and the "robot movement" coach is revealed to be none other than Strictly Ballroom star Paul Mercurio. (Alas, the much-anticipated fly-on-the-wall documentary from splatterpunk author David J. Schow is being hoarded for some future DVD release of the film.) A criminally unannotated still gallery of concept art, a trailer for "Arrested Development", "Inside Look"s at Fox's spring slate (Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Robots, and Elektra), and a pre-menu Fox reel round out the platter. Originally published: November 21, 2004.
THE DVD - ALL-ACCESS COLLECTOR'S EDITION
by Walter Chaw As part of their recent Father's Day promotion, Fox reissued I, Robot on DVD in a two-disc, slipcovered "All-Access Collector's Edition." Adding to the already-impressive tech credentials and self-deluded Alex Proyas/Akiva Goldsman commentary of the previous widescreen release (I like how Goldsman soldiers forth in a way that suggests he understands a third of what he's saying), one of two new film-length yakkers features production designer Patrick Tatopoulos, editor Richard Learoyd, and various members of the visual effects team. True to what you'd expect, it's geared towards the theory and practice of visual design; Tatopoulos, with his crazed accent, dominates and provides for a lively listen. It's not informative, just not inert--would that the same could be said for composer Marco Beltrami's track, which is crushingly inert save the moments where he confesses that he owes his job is in large part to the collaboration of others. Theoretically the fledgling film composer out there might get something out of it, but only theoretically.
Loathe as I am to give credit where credit is due, Stephen King, in his weekly column for ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, makes the pithy observation that the majority of DVD extras, particularly commentaries, are not just horrific but also perhaps included only to distract from how bored we are with the actual movie. (I would offer the caveat that this is true except for extras provided by scholars and critics (as opposed to actual directors). (Notable exceptions: Sam Raimi, John Carpenter.)) And so it goes with this set's second disc full of stuff that no one in his right mind would watch, even on a bet. Clicking on "Play" allows you to view a lengthy making-of "Day Out Of Days: The I, Robot Production Diaries", whilst clicking on "Unique Features" from the main menu provides one of those never-dreaded sub-menus that takes you section-by-section through the supplementary material. Let's start with the "Production Diaries" and its first selection, "Spoonerville, Canada 2035" (10 mins.).
"Alex's Introduction" is Proyas telling us that Vancouver doesn't look a thing like futuristic Chicago followed by "Fed Ex," a short B-roll take of Will Smith acting like an asshole to a Fed-Ex robot who, in the unfinished F/X shot, is a dude wearing a green wetsuit. "Spoonerville" has Smith acting like an asshole as he struts down the street in his badass skullcap while "Dialogue Changes" has Smith acting like an asshole to co-star Shia LaBeouf--but in character, of course, as Will Smith is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life. (Join us, it doesn't hurt and you'll never feel sadness again.) "200 lbs of Love" sees cast & crew sort of milling about while Smith acts like an asshole before one of his co-stars asthmatically delivers her line that Spooner (Smith) is being an asshole.
"USR" (15 mins.)
"Alex's Introduction" finds Proyas saying how proud he was to create exclusively digital environments for which and with which Will Smith could get jiggy. "Lanning's Dead" equals more B-roll, this one punctuated by some girl telling her life's story--which is, essentially, that she rollerskates to a chorus of "roller girl!" every day through the part of town serving as the film's location. Enough to note that this whole extended mini-doc is just somebody's on-set, hand-held home movie. You're going to want to put your face in a blender.
"Following Bread Crumbs" (9 mins.) gives short shrift to the whole Hansel & Gretel theme, again, while offering more of the same B-roll stuff of the actors going through their paces for a minute or two before digging into craft services. Proyas at one point asks, "Are you literally going to film every single boring moment on set?"--to which we have our answer. Chief revelation is that the people behind the camera are every bit as breathlessly disinteresting as the people before it. What a stupid industry.
"You Are Experiencing An Accident" (8 mins.)
Proyas reveals that the car chase was done digitally to the one or two people left on the planet who have never seen a movie before.
"One on One" (9 mins.) has Proyas scolding that one should always be prepared for happy accidents on the set--a funny thing to say when all evidence points to a production so micro-managed that every trace of life has been sucked clean from it like meat from the bone. This is an introduction that allows, you'd think, for a few shots of Smith cutting up, but alas, he's grim as a reaper. I did enjoy him getting all Method on our butts by spinning around until he's dizzy to approximate the very impression that he's dizzy. Oh, Oscar, why hast thou forsaken Smith?
"Lost and Found" (10 mins.)
At last a little friction as Proyas reveals how much he hated the storage container(s) that had to be built for the film (real storage container storage facilities incur too much movement for coherent scenes to be shot from day to day)--including the problem that wetting down the surrounding dust resulted in swarms of mosquitoes for the rest of the location shoot. This brief flare of moderate interest is interrupted by long shots of people doing their job. If the purpose of this thing is to demystify the process of film production: mission accomplished.
"Will Smith's Night of Thunder" (16 mins.) details one late-night location shoot involving hundreds of extras and their guns and motorcycles. It's totally disinteresting except for the interview with Gaston Howard, Smith's motorcycle stunt double, who does a ridiculously dangerous stunt then sits for an interview wherein he refers to Smith's insert-shots as "beauty shots." The way that the digital age has minimized and forgotten stunt people is a genuine tragedy; were it not for this bit and Howard's chat (and a few shots of people actually getting hurt during filming), I would've assumed that the whole gag was a computer phantasm.
"Will Smith's Wild Ride" (12 mins.) is boring. Really boring. Repetitive, too.
"Conclusion" (5 mins.) sees Smith going on about how funny the crew is and how good-spirited the people are and how if the joy on-set is indicative of how the film will do, the film will do funny business! Clips here recap the previous segments, assembled in briefer form for no clear reason.
Onward, click on "CGI and Design" (35 mins.) from the special features menu to watch Proyas introduce a mini-series of mini-docs on how much of I, Robot was excreted from a mainframe, though not without some effort. Cities, characters, integration with live actors--if it feels like we've been down this road countless times already, trust your feelings. Anything HBO hasn't put into eternal rotation can be recycled from any of a number of identical technical makings-of. "Sentient Machines: Robotic Behavior" (35 mins.) is gobbledygook on artificial intelligence and building robots featuring interviews with F/X legends Ralph McQuarrie and Syd Mead as well as a gallery of assorted eggheads waxing rhapsodic about metal men. It's fun, and not an entirely bad primer on the field for a bright kiddo.
"Three Laws Safe" (31 mins.) is a conversation about the sources of the script with screenwriter Jeff Vintar--who reveals that his original script for I, Robot had nothing to do with Asimov. It's sort of interesting to hear Vintar expound at length on the theory of crafting a compelling script that deals with Asimov's philosophical fandangos--enough so that I'd like to see a movie based on such a concept sometime. And finally, a "Filmmaker's Toolbox" reveals three wordless production-house scene evolution "how to" docs covering the work done by Digital Domain (6 mins.), Weta Digital (5 mins.), and Rainmaker (5 mins.). Then, of course, there are the deleted scenes: two of the traditional kind (and not missed) and two alternate endings. The first (2 mins.) is sickeningly optimistic and self-satisfied ("You're with us now!"), the other (1 min.) is just the current ending in pre-viz form. Both platters launch with that hilarious anti-piracy PSA. Originally published: July 4, 2005.