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Dustin Putman

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I, Robot (2004)
3 Stars

Directed by Alex Proyas
Cast: Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, Alan Tudyk, Bruce Greenwood, James Cromwell, Chi McBride, Adrian L. Ricard, Shia LaBeouf, Jerry Wasserman, Fiona Hogan
2004 – 111 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence and brief partial nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 14, 2004.

With 1994's "The Crow" and 1998's "Dark City," director Alex Proyas auspiciously demonstrated his abilities as a cinematic visionary, creating stylized, brooding new worlds never before glimpsed on the silver screen. Even without a solid script (something the mesmerizing "Dark City" did, indeed, have), the experience of simply watching a Proyas film would be an awe-inspiring delight. "I, Robot," an aesthetic and technical marvel "inspired by" the stories of Isaac Asimov, continues the trend. The future world Proyas has fashioned here is clear and meticulous, reminiscent of 2002's "Minority Report" but far more accomplished and visually pleasing than Steven Spielberg's recent tiresome preference toward washed-out, grainy film stocks.

Set in Chicago, circa 2035, a time in which obedient, programmed robots have taken over many working-class jobs and will soon number 1/6 of the population, homicide cop Del Spooner (Will Smith) can't help but be wary of these technological inventions. His suspicions only grow when Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), the distinguished creator and head of the U.S. Robotics Corporation (USR), is found dead. While robot programmer Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) and Lanning's successor, Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood), insist that his death was a suicide, Spooner is none so sure when one of the robots, named Sonny (Alan Tudyk), threatens him with a gun out of fear. Sonny, it turns out, is unlike most of the robots, able to free-thinkingly interact, feel emotions, and even dream. Spooner's investigation leads him to find that many of the robots about to be released into the homes of the general public have evolved far beyond abiding by human's commands, and are quietly planning to take over society.

The near-future director Alex Proyas has envisioned for "I, Robot" is a veritable triumph of art direction, cinematography, and visual effects, the latter of which are, without a doubt, some of the most convincing and lifelike in movie history. Likewise, the photorealistic CGI robots are integrated seamlessly with the human actors and live-action surroundings to the point where it hardly seems like computer effects at all. When the robots perform various stunts, including jumping and scaling buildings, it is superior to anything found in "Spider-Man 2"—quite a remarkable feat. As for the details of this 2035 vision of the world (i.e. all technology is voice-activated, and cars that run on gas are viewed as archaic), some of it seems a bit exaggerated, but not to the point where it becomes wildly implausible or takes the viewer out of the story.

The screenplay, credited to Jeff Vintar (2001's "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within") and Akiva Goldsman (2001's "A Beautiful Mind"), dodges most of the pitfalls of big summer blockbusters. Whereas the recent "The Day After Tomorrow" garnered unintentional laughs out of its clumsy, cornball dialogue and unbelievable plot specifics, Vintar and Goldsman's writing is taut and appropriately no-nonsense. They also do well with developing the picture's timely message—that humans are slowly destroying themselves and the world around them every day—without wallowing on it or spoon-feeding it to audiences. And while there are a handful of sequences where one's suspension of disbelief is required, it remains largely grounded in the reality of the situations. Some of Will Smith's usual one-liners, however, not overdone but still unnecessary, feel distinctly out of place.

For Will Smith, his performance as protagonist Del Spooner is more understated and serious than his work in such low-rent, high-budget projects as 1996's "Independence Day," 2002's "Men in Black II," and 2003's deplorable "Bad Boys 2." He always has charisma to spare, but those who remember his award-caliber acting in 1993's "Six Degrees of Separation" know that Smith is capable of much more than these typecast parts. He would do well to try a smaller, more character-driven piece in the near future to reestablish his talent. As USR employee Susan Calvin, who teams up with Spooner to stop the robot invasion, Bridget Moynahan (2003's "The Recruit") improves as the film unfolds, but is so wooden in the first half that she resembled the very robots her character programmed.

As far as this summer's special effects extravaganzas go, "I, Robot" is not the best—that title would still go to "Spider-Man 2"—but it is smart and creative enough to come surprisingly close. The action set-pieces, including the demolition of a mansion while Spooner is still inside and a robot attack on his speeding car, are strikingly and suspensefully woven throughout the two hour running time, serving the plot in the process without becomes extraneous. Only the finale seems decidedly anticlimactic, coming to a close a little too soon for the payoff to be an unequivocal success. "I, Robot" has its certain demerits, but what surrounds them is so innovative and stunningly orchestrated that they hardly make a difference. This is a wide-scope sci-fi thriller done right.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman