More than any other category of film, I love me some Science Fiction cinema. I feel that Sci-Fi can offer the most variety for a viewing experience. They can be deep and thought provoking, they can be highly imaginative transporting us to strange yet fascinating worlds, they can elevate action scenes in high-tech and jaw dropping ways, etc. More than anything, I love a good Sci-Fi that can combine a little bit of everything. The early 2000’s was the age of Sci-Fi blockbusters that had some semblance of a brain beneath all the flashy effects. Movies like “The Matrix” and “Minority Report” were all the craze, and several films tried to emulate their style. The 2004 movie “I, Robot” was one of the more successful films of the time, but has sense fallen by the waist side, and has become something of a forgotten gem. Well, as always when I get nostalgic for a movie I grew up with, I like to look back and see how much of it really holds up.
Set in a futuristic setting of Chicago, specifically the 2030’s, a detective played by Will Smith has a serious prejudice toured machines, while everyone else on the planet has no problem letting robots run all the jobs and labor work of the planet. There are three laws set in place to make sure that a Robot never harms a human, but detective Will Smith still fears the day in which technology inevitably turns on the creator. One day, the sudden suicide of a robotic scientist gets the detectives attention, and an investigation leads to a rather unique robot named Sunny. This robot has his own intellect, and even emotes like a human. This raises a supposition in the detective, that maybe the scientist was murdered, and possibly by the robot Sunny himself. As his investigation continues, he finds himself falling under constant attack by various robots. Meanwhile, all the rest of the world is completely oblivious of a robot uprising that’s building under their very noise.
In short, the film has a cool premise, it boasts an exciting mystery, and manages to be a relatively fun summer action movie, but there’s one major problem here ... the movie is titled “I, Robot”, and this is not a proper adaption of its literary source material. The original “I, Robot” short stories written by Isaac Asimov are among some of the deepest and most influential that the Science Fiction genera has to offer. It wasn’t just an exciting action mystery thriller, it was much deeper and smarter, combining the themes of interactions with human’s, robots and morality. The “I, Robot” books took Science Fiction to new, inspiring heights that it had never reached before. The movie on the other hand is just basic pop-corn entertainment that occasionally makes reference to its far superior source material. Now to be fair, the movie has underlining themes of race, stereotyping, even slavery and there are select moments that hint at something smart. However, the film just can’t escape it’s summer movie trappings. Now in general there’s nothing wrong with pop-corn entertainment, but if this movie is going to bare the title of “I, Robot”, it needs to be much deeper and more influential than this.
The highlight of the movie by far in the robot Sunny, who completely steals every scene he’s in. Outside of an outstanding performance from Alan Tudyk, and a really cool design, this character’s journey is genuinely intriguing. Granted the concept of a robot developing an intellect is obviously nothing new, but whenever this character is on screen I feel the small traces of Asimov’s original themes and subtext. The problem once again is that Will Smith’s character gets far more attention, and just isn’t as interesting by comparison. Now Will Smith’s performance is perfectly fine albeit a little familiar, and even the characters back story is decent, but he just shouldn’t have been the center point focus of the movie. This might sound like an odd comparison, but this movie should have been a little more like “Who Framed Rodger Rabbit”, a movie that revolves around a detective who has to provide aid to a character that he has a serious prejudice against. One of that films many strengths was the partnership and genuine friendship that slowly bloomed between the two main characters. “I, Robot” had a perfect opportunity to create a similar relationship between the robot Sunny and detective Will Smith, but nothing of the sort ever takes shape until the tail end of the film. The remaining characters are hardly worth mentioning, there’s a female scientist who bears the name of a character from the books, but is largely a forgettable love interest for Will Smith’s character. There’s also a completely pointless teenage character played by Shai LaBeouf, although it is amusing to see him here before he stared in the “Transformers” movies.
Now as far as action and entertainment is concerned, “I, Robot” is perfectly satisfying. I probably sound like a hypocrite after making my negative comparisons to the books, but I’m still going to enjoy all the robot action on some level. While not as impressive as other action movies of this sort, it thankfully isn’t as over the top either, and is consistently fun to watch. The film moves at great pace, unloading just enough fire power while also giving our characters time to breath and emote. The battles also come in a nice variety, this way we’re never tired of seeing the same thing. There’s a giant demolition robot chasing Will Smith in an abandoned house, we have good robots dueling evil robots, and a high-speed car chase in a future setting. I have to admit, I’m a sucker for futuristic cars chasing in high-tech Sci-Fi surroundings.
The special effects are obviously top notch, and deservedly received an Oscar nomination, but lost that year to “Spider-Man 2” respectively. Outside of the effects themselves, some of the imagery is gorgeous, and I like the future setting of Chicago. Most movies revolving around robots taking over are set in these really ugly and depressing futures. The future depicted in “I, Robot” is actually very colorful and looks like a natural if slightly exaggerated depiction of the future. One little touch I really liked was that parking lots are apparently gone, and cars can just be filed away in a locker of sorts until the driver is ready to us it again. Another little detail I like is how casually people just replace their robots, not because their defective, but just because they’re not the newest model. I feel that there’s some commentary there on how people in general today just abandon their current devices just because they’re not the newest thing off the assembly line. Also, the world of “I, Robot” feels like a big one that can be explored in further films. On that note, I’m actually very glad that there weren’t any sequels, it’s such a rare treat to have a completely stand alone summer blockbuster with an expansive universe, but just one movie. Hollywood needs to take notes of this, not every successful blockbuster needs to be made into a franchise.
Now back to the mystery plot, which is competently written, but there really aren’t enough surprises that I didn’t see coming. The supposed “twist” reveal of the computer Viki as the main villain wasn’t that shocking. I mean this is a movie about technology turning on humans, so why should we be surprised by a twist ending where a computer is the villain. The character herself also feels like a watered down version of the “Hal 9000” from “2001: A Space Odyssey”, and by that I mean it’s the same character, just mines the charm, subtext and scares that he provided in that movie. Now for whatever it’s worth, I do love the climax, which takes place on a high rise in this massive building. The setting may not be that original, but I can’t deny that it’s a lot of fun to watch our hero’s jumping around while blasting killer robots with infinite ammo.
So how do I rate this movie, is it bad, is it underrated, is it just okay ... well, it all depends on what you compare this too. If you’re measuring this movie to the quality of its literary source material ... it’s a complete turd. In comparison to other summer blockbusters, this film may come off as just plain average to common movie goers. Personally, I do still like this movie and I think its fun to watch every couple years. It’s definitely inferior to its literary source material, but perhaps it’s best to ignore the similar titles and view them as two separate entities. The 2004 movie “I, Robot” on its own is fine, I enjoy the visuals, the robot action, Will Smith just being his usual cool self, and even if it’s not that thought provoking, it’s not completely brainless entertainment either. It can still be a little creative, even a touch ambitious at times, but there are obviously better Sci-Fi films that mix entertainment and subtext in one package. Both “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and “The Matrix” are arguably the best of the thinking man’s action Sci-Fi movie genera, and I’d probably just recommend those instead. In the long run, robots will always be fascinating subjects for Science Fiction movies, and I think this movie is a mostly worthwhile entry to the genera.
I give “I, Robot” 3 ½ stars out of 5.