Now this is what I call a summer popcorn movie!
It’s hard to say which has the sleeker profile, Will Smith (everything you could ask for in an action hero) or the Chicago skyline of 2035, as envisioned by director Alex Proyas and production designer Patrick Tatopoulos. Shot in a monochromatic pallette of gun-metal grays by cinematographer Simon Duggan, the movie appears both cool and ominous from the very first moment.
Spooner (Smith) is a homicide detective and apparently the only person in the world who is skeptical about the endlessly patient and obedient robots who now make up most of the labor force for menial and domestic tasks. Spooner is a bit retro — his “old-fashioned” stero runs from a remote control, not voice direction, and he listens to the 1976 Stevie Wonder song “Superstition” as he pulls on some vintage (2004) Converse All-Star high-tops.
Spooner’s friend Dr. Lanning (James Cromwell) is dead, an apparent suicide. But there may be more to the story. Lanning left an enigmatic hologram with a message for Spooner. And he left behind a robot whose behavior is so contrary to the principles of robot behavior that it transcends any sort of context, as though a toaster suddenly could feel fear or a lawnmower could feel jealousy.
Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) is a psychologist specializing in robot-human interaction, making sure that robots are designed to make humans feel comfortable with them. She works for Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood), the richest man in the world, the founder of the USR company. They are preparing for the biggest robot distribution in history, with one robot for every five people about to be delivered as an “upgrade.” It is important to Robertson that nothing interfere with the public’s acceptance of his robots.
Robertson dismisses the idea of a rogue robot as impossible because it would undermine his business. Colvin dismisses the idea because it would undermine her need to believe that USR has successfully avoided any adverse effects of its perfectly logical system. The chief of police dismisses the idea because it would be horrendous to think of the days when people were only killed by other people as “the good old days.” But Spooner knows from experience that logical systems sometimes produce illogical results. He knows that Lanning was trying to tell him something important. And he knows more about robotics than he lets on.
The look of the film helps to tell the story and the special effects don’t let us down. The smallest effects are as seamless and important to the story as the big ones, from Spooner’s examination of 1001 robots standing in formation to massive fight and chase scenes to the wink of an eye.
Smith gets better and better. He has enough movie star charm and charisma to fill any screen and then some, even when competing with some very gee-whiz special effects and some very cool-looking robots. But Smith also shows great sensitivity and understanding in giving Spooner some depth and complexity without throwing off the balance of what is first and foremost an action movie. In brief appearances, Greenwood adds a smooth steeliness, Cromwell shows some longing and regret, and Shia LaBeouf, brings some humor ro the role of Spooner’s friend, whose slang is almost incomprehensible. But Moynahan is chillier and more expressionless than the robots her character tries to make more human.
Speaking of which, the human behind the performance of “Sonny” the robot is the talented Alan Tudyk (A Knight’s Tale and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story).
The movie’s one drawback is the ending, a disappointing retread of too many Star Trek episodes. It has enough to keep both head and adrenaline engaged while watching, but the lack of imagination in its resolution mean that by the time your heart slows down again, your mind will already be long gone in a different direction, probably both by the time you toss that popcorn bucket in the trash.
Parents should know that the movie has strong language for a PG-13 and intense action violence with gunshots, crashes, and explosions. Characters are injured and killed. There is a brief silhouetted shower scene, but no graphic nudity.
Families who see this movie should talk about how our lives have changed over the past 20 years due to the development of computers and how they are likely to change over the next 20 years. What will we gain and what will we lose? Why was Spooner the only one who did not trust the robots? If you could create a robot, what would you make sure it could do and what would you make sure it could not do? When we can create machines that do so many things better than we can, what is it that makes us human? Will machines ever have feelings?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the books of wildly prolific author Isaac Asimov, starting with the one that inspired this movie, a series of stories about the development of robots narrated by Dr. Colvin. The word “robot” was invented by playwright Karel Capek for his 1921 play RUR. Memorable robots have been featured in many movies, from the adorable (Silent Running), the funny (Sleeper), and the beautiful (Metropolis) to the almost-human (Bicentennial Man and Artificial Intelligence: A.I.) and the maniacal (Terminator). Forbidden Planet even has a robot based on a character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Families who appreciate this film will also appreciate Blade Runner and the Star Wars series. Arthur Koestler’s book was the first to explore the idea of The Ghost in the Machine, now a popular notion — and an CD by the Police.