Sci-fi / The I, Robot movie: bad, yet interesting

2011-05-15

They say the opposite of love is not hate, but apathy. So I guess it's a good sign when you find a lot of things to say about a supposedly terrible movie. Most of the, admittedly, are complaints. But I, Robot also has unexpected redeeming qualities, and even its failings are worth discussing. So here's my take on it all.

I haven't seen the movie from the beginning, and landing right in the middle of an action scene made the CGI jump out at me. There's way too much of it, and too obvious. Hard to swallow in a 2004 movie. Look, I understand this stuff is expensive, but either take the time to do it right or else cut down on it. Remember when there wasn't any CGI?

The robots themselves are right at the bottom of the Uncanny Valley. I can accept that they don't walk like humans and don't emote like humans -- neither do real-life humanoid robots. But those things are creepy! I can't imagine a vast majority of the population accepting them unquestionably, the way they look in this movie. Then again, maybe people never did accept the robots -- hence the crowd ready to smash them at the first sign of rebellion, towards the end.

That, by the way, is one of the few elements in Asimov's robot stories which do carry through, apart from the robots themselves. But the bulk of the plot has a no less illustrious ancestry, being largely based on that of System Shock (yes, the computer game; if you're not familiar with the story, I recommend Shamus Young's excellent fan novel Free Radical). The first person shooter ancestry may also be why the whole situation ends up being settled with guns, instead of wits as in the stories I, Robot is ostensibly based on.

Look, Dr. Calvin being young and sexy is a great improvement over Asimov's original character. Her failing to use her brains and having to shoot her way to victory is a real downer.

Speaking of that, the whole plot relies on everyone but the protagonist carrying a giant idiot ball right until the end. I'm not talking about the police and army being paralyzed for the final battle -- how else were the heroes supposed to shine? -- but about the way supposedly smart people completely ignored countless suspicious events for what must have been months of story time. When a "walking can opener" starts showing feelings, talking about dreams and giving itself a name, how blind do you have to be to call it all "a simple malfunction"? Also, didn't that road tunnel have surveillance cameras? How about Spooner's oh-so-smart car?

More generally, the script must have been deliberately designed to hit every possible action movie cliche. The rebellious protagonist riding a motorcycle, which seems to happen in every single action movie ever since Top Gun; the macho, trigger-happy, drinking cop who pisses off the higher authorities until he gets himself suspended; the cold, rational scientist getting everything wrong because "waaah, but what about the human soul?" I, Robot has them all, and boy, is it tiresome.

On the plus side, the movie kept me on the edge of my seat for the entirety of its second half, the acting is surprisingly good for a mindless action flick, and even the otherwise wooden Sonny (CGI acrobatics do not a virtual actor make) manages a couple of highly expressive moments. That, and I genuinely laughed at the end when they poked fun at the whole bottomless-pit-with-no-handrails cliche.

Also, for a movie that supposedly fails to be based on Isaac Asimov's stories, I, Robot gets plenty of things right. Are robots truly accepted in society? Is it even a good idea to rely so much on them, even if they are harmless? Are the Three Laws all that good? Is it right to choose whose life to save based on a cold-hearted calculation? All of them legitimate questions that still don't have an answer, more than two decades after Asimov's death; and by now robots are among us for real.

Yes, for such a bad movie there is plenty to talk about in I, Robot.

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