Action blockbuster fans regularly bemoan the rise of digital effects – especially the sort that seem to take half a dozen figures and multiply them by a hundred to fill the screen.
But if there is one movie where this trick actually works, it is Alex Proyas's I, Robot. The sight of rows of identical machines climbing walls or invading a street using exactly the same motions and rhythm is both chilling and apt.
This is a very Hollywood-style adaptation of Isaac Asimov's classic SF stories about the future of robots within a technological society. The Three Laws of Robotics remain intact, but the philosophical edge that Asimov fans appreciate has almost been razed altogether. I, Robot is no 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); it places a heroic tale front and centre. But it is still an immensely entertaining achievement.
In an odd opening scene, the body of Del (Will Smith) is caressed by the camera as he showers and prepares himself for his work as a cop. (In an interview, Smith has declared Del uses no shower curtain for "psychologically plausible" reasons relating to the trauma of his childhood!) Once on the beat during a typical day in 2035, we observe Del's paranoid suspicion of the server-robots that casually share the metropolis with its human citizens.
Del, like many Hollywood heroes, is a Chosen One. It is he who receives the last, enigmatic message left behind in a hologram by Dr Lanning (James Cromwell), inventor of the race of robots. Lanning's death is a clue that something strange is happening. Is there a bad-seed robot in the midst of the pack, or is an unpredictable evolution occurring spontaneously within the technology?
Old-school SF literature and cinema have often worried about this moment when machines might begin thinking for themselves. Proyas, however, has a slightly different and more modern focus. Raised on the movies of David Cronenberg and cyberpunk fiction, he examines the inexorable crossover between the realms of human and machine. This issue comes to centre on a rather appealing renegade robot, Sonny (Alan Tudyk). We slowly begin to see him as a brother, of sorts, to Del.
In many contemporary films of this ilk, the narrative drive enters into battle with the design conception. The effort to create an imaginary world often periodically stops the story dead in its tracks as surely as songs in a musical. Proyas, who has previously grappled with this aesthetic challenge in the memorable Dark City (1998), this time puts the plot firmly in the command position.
The futuristic landscape conjured is sleek and functional – mainly designed to supply the games with scale and vanishing points needed for the spectacular action scenes to work.
But not everything in this film works. A romantic intrigue pairing Del with Robot Psychologist Susan (Bridget Moynahan) is particularly weak and uneventful. That childhood trauma of Del's is harped on a little too much, as is his running reference to a fable about breadcrumbs (which, coincidentally, also features in Hellboy ). And a striking moment that seems to place the hero's own identity in question is never properly dealt with.
Where it most counts, however, I, Robot is itself a sleek, functional machine that effortlessly involves the audience and delivers some fine moments of action-euphoria.
© Adrian Martin July 2004