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I, Robot

[Our Sunday Visitor, July 2004]

Robotics designers have a problem; it’s called the "uncanny valley." Humans like humans, and we like robots, but we want to know which is which. A robot can be made to look increasingly human, and for awhile we find it appealing. But if its skin texture becomes too realistic and movements too lifelike, suddenly it becomes horrifying. Instead of seeing a clever human-like contraption, we think we’re seeing a disturbed, distorted human. It has fallen into the uncanny valley.

This is the creep-factor behind a lot of sci-fi and horror, from Frankenstein to "Blade Runner." If HAL 9000 ("2001") had had a clunky robot voice, it wouldn’t have been so unnerving; it was that gentle, coaxing, fully-human voice that gave us the chills.

The fear that robots might leak over into human life drives the suspense of "I, Robot." Shortly before a new line of androids is introduced, genius designer Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell) plunges to his death through the window of his office, an apparent suicide. Detective Del Spooner (Will Smith) has another theory: he thinks Lanning was murdered by a prototype robot, an android who says his name is "Sonny" (voiced, and CGI-modeled on, Alan Tudyk). Lanning had a theory that scraps of data left behind in robots could combine to form the beginning of consciousness; he noted that some robots, left in darkness, seek light; some, when left in storage, seek other robots to stand near. Might robots someday have dreams?

I wish this movie was as good as it sounds. It simply lacks a centerweight. Sonny combines HAL’s voice with C-3PO’s figure, and is polite and wistful; he never achieves any level of threat. The robots who become threatening do so en masse, and the effect is like a swarm of spiders. The more destructive they become, the less human, less creepy they seem. The uncanny factor is lost.

The Del Spooner character could have contributed some gravity—a detective with some secrets, some cynicism, weariness, hidden sorrow. Instead, Will Smith eats pie. He eats pie from a ceramic dish while walking down the street. When he spots a misbehaving robot he thrusts the dish on a hesitant passerby saying, "Hold it or wear it!"

That’s the kind of snappy talk we expect from Smith, and while it zings in "Men in Black," it’s out of place here. Smith offers only one scene in which he seems in touch with something authentic, and it’s unfortunately not the scene where he works up gelatin tears recounting a traumatic memory. But there’s a brief sequence midway through in which he tells Lanning’s assistant, Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), that he can’t figure out what’s going on. He’s confused by events and even a little frightened. For a brief flash Spooner seems like a real live perplexed detective, rather than a smart-mouthed Fresh Prince. It’s over in a flash, and that’s all you get. Will Smith is the consummate know-it-all, and uncertainty is not among his talents.

The oddest element in the film is Spooner’s relationship with Calvin. It’s meant to be a budding love story, but rarely have two people appeared on screen who seemed so alienated from each other. She communicates no affection or even interest in him, no hint of welcome in facial expression or body language. She moves with such stiffness and speaks with such overly-precise enunciation that I thought maybe Calvin would turn out to be a robot herself. She regards the detective as if he were a spot of dried spinach on a greasy-spoon plate. They have all the chemistry of sand and cardboard.

You know what I liked? There’s a scene in which Lanning’s mansion is going to be demolished by a robot, a "demo-bot." (Improbably, the home’s furnishings are still intact, including the no-doubt-irreplaceable files in the famous inventor’s office. Don’t expect sterling logic in this movie.) The demo-bot is a giant scuffed-yellow metal Gobot, and when the preset timer goes off it stands up, towering against the night sky, reaches out a claw-like hand, and begins grabbing chunks out of the second floor. It was great! After the demo-bot had reduced the building to piles of rubble, it sat down and folded itself up again. This makes no sense as a way to demolish a building, but it was just so cockeyed and free, such a kid’s-eye view of demolition, that I wished I had a demo-bot of my own. I’ll keep him at your house.


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