Wednesday, July 21, 2004

That Will Smith Robot Movie

* * (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2004 at Loews Boston Common #2 (first-run)

I almost actually asked for "That Will Smith Robot Movie" when buying my ticket, but figured I didn't have time to be cute or explain my near-inability to actually call That Will Smith Robot Movie by its title. After talking with my brother, who has read little (if any) Isaac Asimov, I suppose it might be passable as a Will Smith action movie that involves robots, though not exceptional. Why they didn't just leave the name as Hardwired and acknowledge Asimov as the creator of the Three Laws of Robotics escapes me.

(For reference, the Three Laws are a control mechanism Asimov posited all robots in his fictional universe as being programmed with. The first law states that a robot may not harm a human being or through inaction allow a human being to come to harm; the second states that a robot must obey human orders unless doing so would conflict with the first law; the third law states that a robot must preserve its own existence unless doings so would conflict with the first or second laws.)

Even if Fox had done that, though, the movie would still have had problems. It features a number of Dumb Thriller Contrivances, such as the character who creates an elaborate trail of bread crumbs that the star must follow, when a simpler, more direct approach would have likely been far more effective and prevented a great deal of loss of life. It features characters who, despite having met just a day or so earlier and not particularly liking each other, drop in on each other to trade exposition. However, they never ask questions about why a man's house - with his cat and possessions still inside - would be scheduled for demolition approximately twenty-four hours after his death. I know this struck me as odd.

Will Smith catches some flak for doing movies like this, but I'm willing to cut him a little slack. There is very little doubt that he's better than this - check out Ali, or even his cameo in Jersey Girl to see what he's capable of - but coming at it from the other side, if movies like this must be made, there are few people who can carry them as well as the Fresh Prince. He's got a knack for interacting with environments and characters that won't show up until the effects are done that actors with better reputations lack, and he's got the charmisma to sell an otherwise goofy script. This robot movie isn't Smith's best work within the genre, but it would have been much worse without him.

There's a pattern to the rest of the cast - character actors who don't have to stretch one bit. Chi McBride plays the Chi McBride role of the short-tempered police lieutenant who is fond of his detective despite how he berates the guy. James Cromwell plays the James Cromwell role of the smart old guy who was liked and respected even when he was difficult. Bruce Greenwood plays the Bruce Greenwood role of the smarmy, polished, obstructionist executive. Bridget Moynahan plays the Bridget Moynahan role of the pretty, competent woman who is helpful but never overshadows the movie's star. Alan Tudyk gives voice to "Sonny", the experimental robot not bound by the Three Laws who apparently killed his creator.

I'm mildly disappointed with director Alex Proyas here. I've read that he's not terribly pleased with the result, either, but I still expect more from the director of The Crow, Garage Days, and especially Dark City. It appears he needs a little practice with the tools needed to make a massive effects-intensive movie. He goes overboard zipping the camera around at times, which has the effect of overselling the action scenes and making them look seperate from the rest of the movie. He's got a good eye much of the rest of the time, and mostly paces the movie well. And, to be fair, he seems to have gotten a pretty cruddy script to work with.

The script's resemblence to Isaac Asimov's robot stories stops at the Three Laws and a character named "Susan Calvin". One thing many people forget about Asimov is that in addition to being an award-winning science and science-fiction writer, he also wrote tight little mystery stories. Indeed, most of the stories collected into I, Robot were mysteries, with robopsychologist Susan Calvin (who I pictured as middle-aged and somewhat cranky) attempting to puzzle out how robots bound by the Three Laws managed to engage in apparently malevolent behavior. He would probably have seen injecting a robot not bound by the laws as cheating, as bad or worse as the rest of the sloppy mystery writing.

Instead, the screenplay comes from Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman, whose respective resum├ęs are individually uninspiring and who make for a poor combination. That Vintar is apparently adapting Asimov's Foundation stories is frightening to me. I think Vintar at least has some love for this kind of material, but has trouble writing an exciting screenplay. Goldsman, on the other hand, doesn't have a creative bone in his body, and though he probably made the movie more exciting, I wouldn't be surprised if he was the source of the dumb. Why this was used when there's a well-liked screenplay by Harlan Ellison out there boggles the mind.

I love Asimov's robot mysteries, so I may be a little harder on The Will Smith Robot Movie than I should be. It's an average Big Summer Action Movie, certainly better than the likes of Van Helsing, but well below the likes of Spider-Man 2 or even Chronicles of Riddick.

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