I was surprised to find during my recent re-watch that my favorite line in I, Robot is not actually in the movie at all. There’s a scene when Lt.John Bergin (played by Boston Public’s principle Chi McBride) get’s up from behind his desk and cocks a shotgun in preparation to destroy some robots. I distinctly remember him saying, “School’s back in session!” at this juncture, but he does not. As I stroked my chin in confusion I realized that actually it wasn’t McBride who said the line. It was my friend Josh who, when we went to see I, Robot in theaters in 2004, loudly cackled it both to me and the rest of the theater.
This proves two points. Firstly that sometimes audience participation really does enhance the experience. And secondly that our memories are murky things that should not be trusted.
In this case, however, I found I, Robot was pretty much just as mediocre as I remembered. There are some funny things that date it. For instance there’s an extremely young Shia LaBeouf on display. His inclusion in the movie seems completely arbitrary. He’s barely even a character. Also there’s a lot of slow motion action sequences which feel more like a stylistic hold over from The Matrix than anything that’s actually necessary.
Of course the real reason to see I, Robot is to watch Will Smith do his Will Smith thang. Will Smith is one of those actors that essentially plays the same character in every movie, though I’d still argue that his repertoire is really a kaleidoscopic umbrella under which he can give us many different Will Smiths. Me and my friends like to say the key to Will Smith is that his characters ‘don’t play by the rules’. That’s like his central tenant. Seriously watch one of his movies, you’ll see. He just doesn’t play by the rules.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Will Smith. But even the proverbial rule breaking Will Smith in I, Robot isn’t so great. He’s supposed to be a grouchy detective who’s scarred by the past. Let me tell you, it’s not the Will Smith we want to see.
On the other hand the movie opens with him getting out of bed shirtless (which maybe you do want to see?). Then we see him workout a little and then he takes a shower. This is all super boring in terms of the plot. Finally he’s ready to walk out the door, but first he makes sure to put on a pair of “vintage” 2004 (the movie is set forty years in the future) Converse All Stars. “A thing of beauty,” he whispers before donning them. It’s basically a shoe ad. Then he struts out the door into a city full of robots.
And the movie has finally begun!
But first he has to stop at his grandmother’s house, who of course asks him, “What’s that on your feet?”
Will Smith quickly educates her as to their branding and vintage, while propping them up so that she and the audience can get a good look. It’s such brazen product placement that it’s almost entertaining.
Now the movie may begin. There’s a murder plot, and chases and escapes. Will Smith says stuff and does stuff, most remarkably he rides a door like a surfboard out of collapsing building. The robots are very reminiscent of the old iMacs, which makes them look sort of old, even though they’re clearly supposed to look new. It’s not a bad movie but it’s not that great either. If you’re looking for a solid Will Smith fix, you should look for it elsewhere.
I didn’t realize until after the movie was over that the character Sonny (one of the robots) is actually Gollum-suit-acted by Alan Tudyk, who’s famous from the much lauded cowboys in space show Firefly. I’m not sure if he does a good job or not. It’s always hard to tell with those Gollum-suits. In this case it’s even harder because Sonny delivers his lines in a sort of droning innocent Hal-esque way. Which is fine, I guess. Robots will be robots.
I have to say that the special effects were pretty good at the time of this movie’s release. Unfortunately they’ve gotten even better since then. Somewhere between the release of Avatar and the first Avengers movie I stopped caring much about special effects because it all started to look totally real to me. I know it takes hundreds of magicians working tirelessly on a fleet of super powered computers to render it all, but I just don’t give it as much thought as I used to. I no longer suspend my disbelief. What’s on the screen, these days, is pretty darn convincing. But the 2004 digital effects of I, Robot don’t quite hold up. They have an artificial quality (Ha! Get it? Artificial?). They’re sort of fun, but also kind of distracting. Much like the Star Wars prequels.
Ultimately I don’t have the heart rip the movie apart, but I’m not sure I can recommend it either. If you’re stuck inside during a blizzard like I was it can be a fun time. Just don’t forget that the best line in the movie might have to be supplied by the audience.