Ready for a laugh at my expense? Robots creep me out. More intelligent than zombies, more unpredictable than ax-wielding madmen, and more heartless than supernatural beasties, robots have struck me as the most unsettling killing machines featured on film since I was a kid. As you can imagine, flicks with sentient machines haven't exactly left me with fond memories over the years. In 2004, my fellow moviegoers grinned when hordes of robots swarmed Will Smith's car in 'I, Robot.' Me? I sat huddled in the back row of the theater mumbling something like "make it stop." They found themselves enjoying a slick, sci-fi actioner -- I found myself watching a devastating vision of the future that seemed all too plausible.
Set in Chicago in the year 2035, 'I, Robot' introduces a futuristic utopia where harmless, humanoid robots are commonplace in every home and on every street corner. While most Americans are caught up in the convenience of their new 21st century labor force, Detective Del Spooner (Will Smith) has a troubled past with the machines. When he's assigned to investigate the murder of a brilliant doctor (James Cromwell), he finds himself face to face with the robot (voiced by Alan Tudyk) accused of the murder. Unlike the soulless legions of labor-bots in the general populace, "Sonny" seems to have obtained sentience and insists he didn't kill anyone. Forced to come to terms with his own past, Detective Spooner must uncover the secret behind Sonny's sentience and stop a dangerous robotic uprising brewing in the shadows.
Erroneously attributed to Isaac Asimov's short story collection of the same name, 'I, Robot' is actually a loose adaptation of a 1939 short story by Eando Binder. Asimov's infamous "Three Laws of Robotics" are used as a central component of the plot, but otherwise the film works hard to divorce itself from Asimov's writings. It's a good thing too -- director Alex Proyas ('The Crow,' 'Dark City') floods the film with so much kinetic gunplay and explosive action that Asimov would still be rolling over in his grave. For the most part, Proyas's production is a lone wolf effort that follows its own path, ideas, and message, while harkening back to many of the themes explored by the director in his previous films.
My irrational fears aside, 'I, Robot' is a fine piece of filmmaking. When I first watched the film, I was worried it would just be another Will Smith summer blockbuster attempt. Thankfully, Proyas delves into the story's sci-fi roots with gusto and spends a considerable amount of time questioning the ethics of robotics, the dangers of arrogance, and the reality of class warfare. His vision of the future isn't shaped by special effects, but by ideas. He actually works to develop his characters, rather than slapping them into action scene after action scene as they hurtle toward a predictable ending. The director even manages to throw a whopping sucker punch at the audience with a surprising denouement. Proyas proves, yet again, that he should be on the shortlist of directors best equipped to handle any film that encroaches on the dark fringes of sci-fi and fantasy.
The actors do a great job with the material as well. Alan Tudyk performs miracles with his voicework and helps Sonny emerge as the most endearingly human character on the screen. Beyond Tudyk, Bridget Moynahan, Chi McBride, and Shia LaBeouf pop up to contribute additional layers to the story. They handle their smaller parts in stride and make the most of every scene. Last but not least, Smith delivers a great performance, despite the fact that he relies on his usual screen persona a bit too often. While an uncomfortable abundance of stereotypical one-liners limit the tone of the otherwise heady sci-fi plot, Smith grounds the film in reality when it comes time for the robots to attack.
To its detriment, the third act overflows with action -- so much so that the story takes a back seat to the scurrying foot soldiers of the robot army. At any given moment, swarms of robots make it seem a bit unlikely that a human detective could outwit and outrun a vast army of machines. It makes for a tense experience, but it also feels hurried and frantic compared to the rest of the film. Consistent pacing is one of those elements that transforms a great film into a classic. It may sound strange, but 'I, Robot' is merely a great film.
Alex Proyas is one of my favorite directors -- his grim visual style and believable characters transcend his source material to provide a compelling film. For all intents and purposes, 'I, Robot' was probably meant to be little more than a summer blockbuster that would generate millions for the studio. Luckily, Proyas injected enough intrigue and thought-provoking questions to push this blockbuster higher than the usual action dreck.
'I, Robot' features a jaw-dropping, reference quality 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that easily solidified its place as my go-to demo disc of choice. The washed-metal palette of the film inhabits the screen, effortlessly rendering faultless fleshtones, dazzling primaries, and revealing shadows. Fine object detail is exceptionally sharp, boasting crisply defined edges and extensive texture clarity. I would offer a selection of showcase scenes, but I may as well begin at the opening titles and direct you to examine every shot that passes on your way to the end credits. The real kicker is how pristine the image actually is -- there isn't a hint of compression artifacts, color banding, source noise, or edge enhancement. Just how clean is the picture? Grain levels are more steady and inconspicuous than in any other filmic transfer I've reviewed.
Best of all, contrast is bright and welcoming, deepening the image and creating a wondrous, three-dimensional "picture window" effect. The illusion is utterly convincing. It's rare that a video transfer actually improves upon the tone of the film, but I can't imagine watching 'I, Robot' any other way. Stomping the original DVD, outclassing the theatrical experience, and putting other Blu-ray stunners to shame, the Blu-ray edition of 'I, Robot' quite simply delivers one of the best transfers I've ever seen.
Floored by 'I, Robot's astounding picture quality? Wait until you get a load of the potent DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio track Fox has managed to master. Once again I'm at a loss to point out specific scenes; the entire mix is so extraordinary that I stopped taking notes and merely attempted to soak it all in. Dynamics are fantastic, regularly furnishing the film with roaring LFE thooms and stable high-end wheens. I watched the climactic car chase three times just to take in the nuances of the sound design. Fidelity is consistent and flawless -- I was entranced by the acoustics of the tunnel and the detailed subtleties of the swarming robots. Considering how absurd the attack got at times, I couldn't believe how realistic it all sounded. Just listen to the skittering limbs of the pouncing bots, the engines throttling against the road, and Smith's screams. In a word? Amazing.
I'm running out of thesaurus entries for the word "perfect," so allow me to address the technical proficiency of the surround channels. Accuracy is precise, pans are invisible, and rear support is aggressive to say the least. I found myself looking over my shoulder on more than one occasion as the soundfield continually fooled me into thinking sounds were coming from elsewhere in my home. To top it all off, dialogue is sharp and expertly prioritized -- I never strained to hear any words, and lines were never drowned out by the film's chaos. To be blunt, 'I, Robot' offers fans a reference quality DTS HD MA track that's an early contender for Best High-Def Audio of 2008.
At first glance, I foolishly thought Fox had finally released a film on Blu-ray with a definitive supplemental package. Unfortunately, the stingy studio continues to miss the point, failing to respond to fan outcry. Instead of packing in all 4 hours of featurettes that appeared on the 2005 2-disc Collector's Edition DVD, Fox has trimmed down the runtime and even left an entire documentary on the cutting room floor. Approximately 240 minutes of bonus material has been reduced to 150 minutes -- instead of issuing a 2-disc BD set, Fox has elected to discard an hour and a half of behind-the-scenes information. Unbelievable.
Thankfully, the surviving features still provide a thorough overview of the production. Different types of supplements have been mapped to the colored buttons on every Blu-ray remote. Pressing any of the buttons mid-film gives you instant access to any related bonus content at any given time, but you get more than a list of features -- it's possible to flip through commentaries according to subject matter on the fly, access scene-specific featurettes, and pop in and out of the film at whim.
The downside to this shiny new coat of menu accessibility is that the entire process is too complex for its own good. Mapping the menu system would be more challenging than mapping the human genome -- I nearly gave up trying on several occasions. For every good idea (labeling chapters of commentaries by subject matter), there are a slew of bad ideas that could have been implemented far more efficiently. It's only possible to access featurettes that directly relate to the chapter being viewed, loading delays are common whenever a video feature is opened, and some "featurettes" are less than thirty seconds long. And those are just the bigger hassles. The entire navigation is practically crippled from the outset and will provide users with unending frustration. Save yourself the trouble -- use the Blu-ray accessibility to hop between the commentaries, but access the behind-the-scenes content from the main menu.
Green Button -- The best BD enhancement of the bunch is used to listen to the three audio commentaries included on the disc. An on-screen pop-up menu explains the general subject matter each commentary is covering during any given scene. While you can listen to each of the tracks separately, a quick click of the remote allows you to access a variety of topics whenever you like. This was a very cool accessibility feature that should appear on any BD release that has multiple commentaries.
Red Button -- Tapping the red button mid-film allows you to access chunks of scene specific behind-the-scenes content. A real-time menu can be opened on the fly (or left on the screen) which lists the available featurettes that are applicable to any given scene. It's also possible to access all of the content by visiting the "Unique Features" option in the main menu. The main documentaries have "Play All" options -- just be warned that their subsequent subchapters do not.
'I, Robot' is a rare action/sci-fi hybrid that balances its brains and brawn. With a challenging director at the helm, a heavy dose of amazing special effects, and a talented group of committed actors, 'I, Robot' manages to surpass its genre brethren and appeal to its audience's intelligence. Likewise, this Blu-ray release accomplishes what most others have not -- a perfect marriage of reference quality video and audio. It has to be seen and heard to be believed. Unfortunately, Fox has once again made it impossible to toss out my standard DVD. While this edition includes a ton of supplemental content, it's missing a whopping 90-minutes of featurettes that appeared on the 2-disc Collector's Edition DVD. What should have been a "Must Buy" title is knocked down a bit as I brace for the inevitable release of a 2-disc, double-dip Blu-ray edition in the future.