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Summer Movie Flashback: I, Robot

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2004
2004

I, ROBOT is a movie that I had low expectations for when I saw it that summer, and it exceeded them, so it seemed pretty good. Re-watching it now it’s still pretty good but maybe a little less pretty good now that I expected it to be pretty good.

If you haven’t seen it, it’s a mystery story in a sci-fi world of 2035 where helpful robots are a common household appliance. Will Smith plays Detective Del Spooner (Spanish for “Detective of the Spooner”), an arrogant, trenchcoat-wearing Chicago cop who is horribly racist against robots and always trying to accuse them of crimes, even though they’re programmed to always protect humans and have never in history committed a crime. His boss (Chi McBride) is constantly embarrassed by this fucking idiot working for him but must have an old friendship with him and feels sorry for him enough not to fire his ass like would probly happen to anybody else fucking up as bad and often as this fuckin guy does and always acting like a total crazy person in front of numerous witnesses both at work and in public.

The biggest change in my second viewing was just noticing what a dick Spooner is. It’s like Smith has some BAD BOYS residue on him or something. In the beginning he demands for a random citizen to hold his half-eaten pie for him, threatening “Sir, hold it or wear it.” Look at this poor guy. What did he do?

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Menacing a random bystander so he can chase an innocent machine that’s actually saving an old lady’s life. Great job, Spooner!

still_irobot3still_irobot4When he interrogates the CEO of USRobotics (Bruce Greenwood) he’s hostile toward him for no reason too. He tries to fuck with him by interrupting his story to ask for sugar. Then he fake laughs about that he thought he was calling him “sugar” when really he wanted it for his coffee.

This guy’s dear friend and colleague just committed suicide! He is in the middle of telling you about it! What the fuck is your problem, detective?

Some of these little weird moments I think could be funny done completely deadpan, but I don’t like the way Will Smith always changes his voice into “funny mode” when he thinks he’s being funny. It ruins any odd sense of discomfort that could’ve been mined from it, and just makes him seem like an asshole. But he’s not being a charming asshole either, just a bitter one.

Luckily, Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) handles him perfectly when he’s comparing her to his ex-wife and she asks, “I’m sorry, are you being funny?” It would be kind of cool to have a button to push to bring that clip up whenever you need it in other movies or in life.

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The future technology has aged pretty well as far as these things go. Their phones are Bluetooth type headsets, not smart phones, but I guess your robots  could Google shit for you if you needed them to, and nothing else seems dated. I like that the robots have wifi and get daily firmware updates, that still seems right. The cars and robots and everything still look slick. But nine years later we are no closer to a 2035 where Converse All Stars are weird and rare. He has to order “vintage 2004” Chucks and his Grandma asks “What are you wearing on your feet?” Didn’t smell right then and still doesn’t. But I guess we just experienced a short time when Twinkies didn’t exist, so you never know.

One thing that does play differently in 2013 is Shia LaBeouf. He has a small but prominent role as some kid that is friends with Spooner. He comes up to him on the street asking him for a favor and Spooner lectures him about swearing. Then he shows up later and for some reason seems to be the leader of the human contingent in a medieval style battle against robots:

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I feel a little weird about this part. I know it’s not a realistic movie overall, but somehow the stark propaganda imagery here seems out of place. There should be more chaos, more confusion it seems like. Have I been brainwashed by all these handheld movies to expect documentary-like realism? I don’t know.

One thing I do appreciate, this is the only time you will see Shia LaBeouf fighting a CGI robot and be able to clearly see exactly what the robot is doing to him and which way the robot is facing and what part is his head and stuff.

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And what the hell, I’m always down for some HARD TARGET era John Woo type action, so what do I care if slow motion Will Smith jumping off a motorcycle and firing two guns seems pretty different from the rest of the movie? I still enjoy it.

I actually couldn’t remember the solution to the mystery of why the doctor died and why the robots were doing what they were doing, so it was still suspenseful for me, and I think the explanation does make sense. Reading about the development of the movie, though, I learned that earlier scripts had a more involved mystery story that was rewritten by notorious Academy Award winner and writer of some of the worst movies of all time Akiva Goldsman to be more Will Smithy and have cars crashing and what not. Trying to make it more Big Willie Weekend compatible. What sounds real interesting though is the original draft of the script which was not meant to be based on Asimov and was a one location story like a play, or maybe like a lower budget sci-fi like MOON. In that version the entire story takes place at the crime scene and the detective is the only living human in the story, and he interviews various robots until he solves the mystery. I want to see that!

But what they made instead comes together well. I like that I totally forgot about Spooner’s robot arm by the time he needed it to grab onto the glowy thing when he made a Vin Diesel style leap of faith. It seems like it’s all thematic, he hates them because he’s like them, but then also it’s used for a couple big action moments. Good shit.

The director, you remember, was Alex Proyas (DARK CITY) and this was his big Hollywood movie that he had trouble making. In an interview with Quint he described it as “a particularly arduous experience” and “the most unbelievable level of meddling I could possibly imagine,” but it’s not a “we need a director’s cut” situation because he also says “I am still proud of the movie and I actually feel I made the best possible movie I could have made.”

He’s only made one movie since, and it took him 5 years to get that one on screen. That movie was KNOWING, which plays with the expectations of being a pretty normal studio movie like this one and then goes nuts. Didn’t go over well, but me  and especially Roger Ebert enjoyed it.

I still like that the I, ROBOTs look like iMacs. They look like products that would exist more than they look like traditional sci-fi robots. They’re sleek like something you would want to own. But also they do so many creepy things. When they swarm they look so inhuman. One part I really appreciated this time is when Sonny fights other robots in the hall. They have sort of their own robot fighting style based around their own movements instead of only copying human fighting systems. They jump through the air and do weird types of spins that humans wouldn’t. They also run in a very efficient manner based on Tom Cruise rather than on regular running.

As a director Proyas also moves like a robot. He does impossible camera moves like following Will Smith as he’s carried by a flipping robot, or spinning all the way over and under as he runs on a catwalk. I wouldn’t want everybody to do this but since they don’t it’s kind of cool to see him taking advantage of the fact that the shots are being done in a computer, not the real world.

I guess my 2004 take on this movie hasn’t changed that much. It’s got more imperfections than I want but enough good shit that I like it. In the end I respect it. I can shake its hand just like racist Spooner can shake the robot’s hand and it looks like he’s genuine, he’s not gonna go squirt some hand sanitizer on there afterwards.

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My original review
other movies that came out that summer: TROY, THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN, THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK, SPIDER-MAN 2, KING ARTHUR, I, ROBOT, CATWOMAN, THE BOURNE SUPREMACY, ALIEN VS. PREDATOR
highest grossing movie that year: SHREK 2


VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 20th, 2013 at 12:55 pm and is filed under Action, Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

27 Responses to “Summer Movie Flashback: I, Robot”

  1. I always had a soft spot for this movie, despite its obvious flaws. It’s much better than many people give it credit for, although much worse than any movie with that title should be.

  2. The original Paul

    August 20th, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    EVERY movie robot made in that era looked like an i-Mac. It was a law. (Well, almost all of them. That wasn’t a cue for every commentator here to start googling movies from 2004 that featured robots that didn’t look like i-Macs, just to prove me wrong.)

    I did like this one, despite the huge problems with Will Smith being… well… Will Smith. Cynical cop with a tragic backstory he ain’t. I kinda liked how they led you to believe that one main character was a robot when in fact it was another main character. On occasion it’s head-slappingly stupid (at the start it’s said that no robot has ever committed a crime, which immediately leads into a scene in which Will Smith creates a huge scene to “arrest” a robot as a bag-snatcher. Smart way to announce Will’s robot paranoia there, guys!) but in way that’s part of its charm.

    I would point out Marco Beltrami’s score though. “Spiderbots”, the song that’s used in the robot attack at the end, is another of those film themes that’s been used on pretty much every non-American TV show ever made (non-American, again, thanks to copyright laws.) This is another one of my personal favorite movie scores. Had the movie been as genuinely epic and smart as it felt like it had once tried to be before the sixteenth re-write turned it into a bog-standard Big Will actioner, this score would’ve been an all-time classic. As it is, it’s just a little too dramatic to work with the silliness of the film, but still sounds wonderful listened to in isolation.

  3. The original Paul

    August 20th, 2013 at 1:21 pm

    CJ – I feel ya. There’s a lot to like. I honestly think that a lot of the visuals, and especially the scoring, are top-notch. If you can excuse the frequent moments of head-slapping stupidity, it’s not half as bad as its reputation would suggest.

  4. “I DID NOT MURDER HIM!”
    Remember that line always being in every trailer and tv spot?
    I like this one well enough. Some dumb things here and there and a predictable twist at the end, but some decent action and effects, and I like the mystery aspect to it. The lack of an Alan Tudyk tag for this review makes me sad, though. He did one of the first major mo-cap performances as Sonny, but no one seems to recognise that, not even one of the producers of the movie!

  5. You and I are so on the same wavelength, sir. Last time I watched this movie (probably a year ago), 20 minutes in I turned to my friends and said…”So basically, Will Smith is just a dick…right?”

  6. Yeah, I had a real problem with the way this film ramped up Will Smith’s dickishness and robo-racism, just so he could more effectively say “I told you so” when all the robots go nuts.

    I resented this film at the time for being a perfect example of smart, thoughtful sci-fi being turned into a crass, product-placement-riddled action movie. But when I actually saw it, it wasn’t too bad. Not good, but not too bad.

  7. Paul, which other robots look like iMacs? I guess there was that Bjork video that had a robot that might’ve been somewhat similar in shape, but I don’t think it was see-through like this one. I can’t think of any examples of what you’re talking about.

  8. never saw this one, in fact the only movie I did see summer of 2004 was SPIDER MAN 2, let’s just say that there was some serious personal shit going down at that time that made me a little distracted from going to the movies

  9. I had really low expectations for this when it came out, but I wound up enjoying it. Though Will’s absolute dickishness was rather annoying.

  10. I don’t like Will Smith at all. I know he’s loved in most parts, but to me he’s got the Tom Cruise type of off screen super personality that makes it difficult see him play a grizzled cop or whatever. Unlike Tom though, he doesn’t prove me wrong when I watch his films. I had a good laugh at this review. I watched this at the cinema and had a great time watching Will Smith trying for something different and coming across like an arsehole.

    Sorry for the negative rant against a guy, I know this place is better than that.

  11. Don’t worry Ace outside of the fresh prince albums and TV series I don’t like Will Smith either. He’s the ultimate example of charisma >>> skill which is why so many people give him a pass. I think the boiling point for me was watching him trying to play one of the greatest people on the planet (Ali) with very little conviction.

    That’s also when I started to question my blind love for Michael Mann’s work too at that point. I never even made it through that entire movie. The only Will Smith movies I have seen all the way through were BAD BOYS, MEN IN BLACK, INDEPENDENCE DAY, ENEMY OF THE STATE, BAD BOYS II and HANCOCK. Only enjoyed BAD BOYS and ENEMY OF THE STATE the former cause Martin Lawrence was actually funny back then and the latter mostly cause of Tony Scott’s direction. The others were really forgettable at best and extremely grating at worst.

    As a big fan of I AM LEGEND’s source material I never bothered watching that and hear that I didn’t miss out on anything at all. Never really thought I, ROBOT was all that great. It’s one of the lesser Asimov works from the ones I’ve read but I still doubt this movie has even a fraction of the imagination the short stories in that book had. Also never bothered with this cause Proyas was very quick to disown the shit out of it and I’ve never seen a director ever do that unless the end result truly is a mediocre piece of studio mandated fluff.

  12. Vern – From the pics released the giant robots (Sentinels) in Bryan Singer’s new X-Men movie look like a cross between and iMac and a Dyson vacuum cleaner.

  13. Paul has failed to respond to Vern’s iMac Robot Challenge. I don’t recall any iMac-inspired movie robots from the time, but I do remember seeing a lot of other products biting Apple’s style. Like, toasters and blenders and shit, all white with a big colourful translucent window.

    Broddie: You got me curious to check it out and hey, they really do look like a Dyson vacuum cleaner! I’d have preferred the simplified, cartoony design that’s on the Trask posters, but at least they aren’t a big mess of whirring cogs and crap.

  14. Paul Whose Computer Has Packed In

    August 23rd, 2013 at 2:36 am

    Yeah, I’ve had some problems with my computer (it broke), hence my lack of activity these past few days. I have an alternative but it’s not ideal.

    Vern – I had a really good one. Honest. But right now all I can come up with is a couple of TV characters and Eve and Auto from “Wall-E”. I’m sure there are more, but I can’t recall any specific ones. This was the age when movie robots stopped looking like Johnny-5 (which is ironic, considering Wall-E himself) and started looking like sculpted monoliths.

  15. The original draft of this movie sounds from that description exactly like the dozen or so Asimov stories that were one-location mysteries where robots have to be interviewed and logic applied to reach the solution. If it wasn’t originally supposed to be Asimov, I’m betting it was inspired by it anyway.

    So then it actually made sense for them to get the rights to the title and use that, but then somewhere in there it became a big Will Smith action movie and now bears almost no resemblance to Asimov at all. I’d say whatever went on in pre-production is probably a more interesting story than this movie turned out to be.

  16. Ro, ro, ro your bot,
    Try to stand da Will,
    If Asimov were still alive,
    He’d go berserk and kill.

  17. Speaking of which, where is AsimovLives on this one? You’d think he’d have some strong words about this bastardization of the works of his namesake and how it compares to J.J. Abrams’ STAR TREK movies.

    Also, he should change his name to AsimovKills.

  18. I don’t like this one for several reasons, the most damning of which is the ridiculous product placement stuff. My understanding is that making him into a sort of 20th century retro nerd was done just so they could plausibly include things like Converse All Stars and lines like the one you mentioned which point out the product. At least in Demolition Man, Sandra Bullock’s character having he same quirk helps the story because it plays with her relationship with Sly. Here it’s character traits for the sake of advertising.

  19. I might as well throw in some thoughts on the year 2004, I have some nostalgia for it, but it’s guarded, it’s not a year I would want to live again

    like I’ve said before some bad things happened that year, but there was still some interesting things too, for one thing it was a pretty fucking epic year for video games

    and while we’re on the subject of 2004, remember when everyone flipped their shit over THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST? either it made them furiously angry or they loved it, but damn did it sure get everyone talking and it was a phenomenon that ONLY could have happened at that particular time in American history

    and say what you will about the movie itself, but it never quite sat right with me how some people seemed to take the attitude like it was inherently wrong for Mel Gibson to make a movie about Jesus, not just the way he did it, but like there’s an unwritten rule that Christian films have to stay in the TBN and Christian Bookstore ghetto (remember that episode of South Park saying “we go to Church to learn about the Bible, we go to the movies to be entertained”, as if all movies should just be mindless entertainment)

    of course, Hollywood later got their revenge by making THE DAVINCI CODE and pissing Christians off

  20. Ace Mac Ashbrook

    August 26th, 2013 at 1:12 am

    Broddie> I Am Legend is not worth going near. Smith was far from Robert Neville in the book.

  21. Griff, and for some strange reason Hanks’ hair pissed everyone off.

  22. Hanks tried and failed to bring the mullet back

  23. The one thing I really liked about this movie was Will Smith’s reason for hating robots, which actually struck me as being both profoundly realistic (i.e., an outward-projected anger based on sublimated grief and helplessness) and a legitimate criticism of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics — that they result in a calculus of morality that is sometimes offensive to humanity, but that this sense of humanity can’t be effectively codified.

    I am assuming that was not a part that Akiva Goldsman added.

  24. Also the part where they’re being chased by the evil robot through the robot junkyard, and all the other robots that are programmed to protect humans just start leaping in the way of the evil robot.

  25. 2035 and the guy – Will Smith supposedly a cop – still struts, talks, acts and speaks like an off the street thug punk wannbe gangster take your pick. I too picked up on the attempts at Will Smith “humor” .. oh you thought I was calling you sugar…” Real stupid and out of place at that point in the script — Bridget Moynahans “Are you trying to be funny? ” is good for the insipid “Do you know my wife?” flop but as a CEO of a major company, I would show Smith the door and then call his supervisor — The matter involving the robot earlier in the day would be childs play compared to the lack of professionalism that Will Smith conveys throughout the movie – Remember – the idiot is driving manually and calls the truck driver “Asshole” while it is Smith closing in too closely on the vehicle in front of him. There is very little of Smiths lines that point to his being able to carry a major character in a major film. I Robot is about Sonny – not Will Smith. It is ironic that his granny still has an influence upon him. “Want me to call your Granny?” I like I, RObot” but I have never been able to enjoy Smith. He came close in the film in New York with the zombie like creatures and his particular blood type. Close but in I Robot Amith is still an amateur.

  26. ^ Lotta rage right there bro. I know your comment is from 2014, but I’m just hoping you haven’t spun off the planet.

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