Last week, Jay Leno asked Will Smith about his much-rumored shower scene in I, Robot. Sweetly, though not exactly self-deprecatingly, Smith aw-shucksed his way through an explanation: “It’s not just random nekkedness, Jay. It moves the story along.” Coy as he’s pretending to be, he’s also right.
“Suggested” by Isaac Asimov’s legendary robot stories, Alex Proyas’ new movie works several ways at the same time. Primarily, it functions as a Will Smith vehicle, designed to show off his sculpted body and amiable wit. The former is manifest in that shower scene, as well as Smith’s first moment on screen, as homicide detective Del Spooner: he wakes in a panic, following a nightmare, with stylish skully and neat black briefs.
That nightmare (featuring an endangered little blond girl) will be explained as the movie proceeds, but the point here is Del’s solitary, rather severe lifestyle. His apartment is small and not exactly “futuristic” (this even as he lives in 2035 Chicago): he’s got books, he’s got a remote for his stereo, he’s got old-fashioned dumbbells, as well as a smart leather jacket, black t-shirt, and black leather vintage Chucks (date: “2004,” he announces proudly to the first person who asks). In other words, like so many movie detectives, Del is man of habits and no frills. He’s the cool guy in this room.
To illustrate, following his bad dreams, he spends a few minutes each morning with his grandmother (Adrian Ricard), whom he adores. He’s equally warm and clever with his boss, Lieutenant John Bergin (Chi McBride), who both worries about and teases his mentee. “Are you sure you’re ready to be back?” he asks Del, suggesting he has secrets. Or, as his grandmother puts it, he’s got “issues.” “Baby,” she coos, “You get too worked up about [robots], too full of fear; you got to let the past be the past.”
Del’s traumatic backstory will emerge (the script by Akiva Goldsman and Jeff Vintar grants him all kinds of personal motivation), but for now, suffice it to say that he harbors an unhidden prejudice against robots, the era’s much extolled slave labor force. The following day promises a roll-out of a next generation of robots, manufactured and marketed by the monopolistic U.S. Robotics. Soon, every household will include at least one robot, designed to look after diurnal needs and provide companionship. The new model, the NS-5, is sleeker, shinier, more-iMac-like than the NS-4, and its popularity marks the company’s thorough commercial and cultural success.
Since the robots are, according to Asimov’s socio-political and scientific architectures, eminently “safe” (that is, governed by the Three Laws, first being, no harming of humans, ever), Del’s apprehension appears irrational. But it also underlines the film’s interest (at first anyway) in Asimov’s fundamental questions. The “I” of his title refers variously, to self-consciousness (for they are evolving); reflections between robots and humans; and moral responsibilities. The “I” of the film’s title is complicated by business. The movie is big. As the making-of specials on HBO and MTV have noted, much of the action is digital, as are the Gollumized robots. And so, the visuals are all about reflection and self-reflection: you know what you’re watching, and evaluate digital quality even as you note plot. And that plot aligns you with Del, whose prejudice will prove both right and wrong.
Boom. His first minute (back) on the job, Del is called to a crime scene, at the USR headquarters, where the company’s chief designer, Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), is dead, having plummeted from a window many stories above. Del must not only solve the crime, but must also deal with the clues and roundabout instructions left behind by the doctor, who “trusts” Del to “ask the right questions” (here, trust shapes intra-human interactions, beyond the logic allotted to robots, even when one of those humans is dead, speaking via holographic recording). In other words, there’s a big fat plot afoot, initiated in what Lanning terms “the ghost in the machine.”
Del’s mission, more or less, is to identify that ghost, or at least figure out his relationship to it. This entails the requisite run-ins with the corporate suit, Lawrence Robertson (underused Bruce Greenwood), prickly CEO of USR. He, harrumph, resents the implication that he has something to do with the good doctor’s murder (which Robertson insists is suicide, even though there’s no way the old man could have thrown himself through the safety glass). Del suspects Robertson of murder, or more precisely instructing a robot, named Sonny (Alan Tudyk, CGI-ed), to do the deed. The possibility that Sonny (who is, you hear repeatedly, “unique”) has done this, whether by order or error, is a disaster by definition, given that precious and supposedly inviolable first rule.
Del learns the extent of this disaster from his guide at USR, a “young version” of one of Asimov’s most fully realized characters, robot psychologist Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan). She’s less realized here, and spends a few too many of her onscreen minutes near tears, offering that usual movie-girl look that conveys — at once — vulnerability, frustration, realization, and outrage. The more Susan comes to believe Del’s suspicions, the less she can keep faith with her own history, the company, and the robots she thinks she knows so well. Her conversion confirms his self.
Del’s suspicions are repeatedly confirmed for you in the film’s many, redundant action sequences. Even as he’s being told his prejudice is unfounded, he’s repeatedly attacked by robots, the “bad” ones marked by glowing red lights in their chests and behaviors not a little derivative of the first Terminator at his film’s end. These green-screen jamborees are utterly summer-blockbustery (or maybe just Will-Smithy), but they also tend to substitute for ideas. Though Proyas has shown himself to be adept at maintaining connections among effects and complex concepts (see: Dark City), this $105 million production is inconsistent, prone to deploy slow-motioned sprints, leaps, or crashes through glass instead of emotional or political developments.
In the threeway relationship among Sonny, Susan, and Del, the film achieves its most compelling questions about identity and desire, but this relationship is cut short, or rather, reduced to brief exchanges, during action scenes (“Save me!”) or during the film’s versions of conversations. “You are the dumbest smart person I have ever met,” Del tells Susan. She comes back, “And you are the dumbest dumb person I’ve ever met.” Um, so there.
Their inevitable reconciliation leads directly to I, Robot‘s actionated finale. By this time, the film’s efforts to resolve its wide-ranging problems concerning race and class systems have become both transparent and tedious. The commercial machine’s relationship to its ghosts remains intractable and self-evident.