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.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment brings 'I, Robot' to 3D Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack. Both the 2D and 3D versions of the movie are available on the same Region Free, BD50 disc with the option to switch between the formats under the "PLAY" button in the main menu. The Region 1 locked DVD-9 contains all the special features and presents the movie in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Both discs come inside a blue, eco-vortex keepcase on opposing panels with a lenticular slipcover. At startup, the Blu-ray goes directly to a 3D animated menu with the standard options at the bottom and one exclusive extra in the top right corner of the screen.
Alex Proyas's sci-fi actioner arrives to 3D Blu-ray with a generally pleasing, but ultimately unnecessary1080p/MVC MPEG-4 encode. Presented in an open matte aspect ratio of 1.78:1 (previous Blu-ray has the OAR of 2.35:1), the conversion is not half bad, all things considered, but it also does absolutely nothing for the film either. Depth and dimensionality is apparent and can be pretty cool in several sequences, especially during scenes with long hallways, whenever Spooner drives through the freeway tunnel or when the action suddenly moves in slow-motion. Background objects seem to be at great distances, further extending the image, and the final battle against V.I.K.I. has some of the best 3D effects of the entire movie.
The problem is that the picture is not consistent and often feels flat, as if it has reverted back to a 2D format. There's a decent sense of layering throughout although it mostly seems artificial, but separation between the foreground and background is entirely unconvincing. And I did detect a bit of crosstalk in a few scenes, which will likely be more evident on certain displays. Nothing ever pops out of the screen to at least remind viewers they are in fact watching a 3D movie, and there's never a sense of space. In the end, 'I, Robot' doesn't benefit at all from the conversion and never feels immersive.
On the 2D front, the video remains the same jaw-dropping quality as the previous high-def release, except it, too, is presented in the unmated 1.78:1 format. Definition is razor-sharp from beginning to end with outstanding, crystal-clear fine lines on clothing, inside homes and the outside of skyscrapers. One very minor moment at the beginning shows a slight moiré effect as the camera slowly pans over the city, but it goes away just as quickly as it is noticed for a brief instant. Little bits of rust spots and scratches on older model robots are plainly visible and distinct while the newer models expose every joint, wire and other miscellaneous parts of metal with extraordinary clarity.
Even with the darkened glasses, the intentional photography with its lightly grayish, somewhat lifeless tone comes through perfectly as contrast is quite vivid and crisp without ruining other aspects of the presentation. Black levels are rich and luxurious with deep penetrating shadows and excellent delineation. The color palette is bright and bold, particularly the warm, full-bodied primaries. Facial complexions appear natural with exceptionally lifelike textures which reveal every wrinkle, pore and blemish during close-ups. In the end, the movie doesn't benefit in the least from the 3D conversion, but the 2D version remains fantastic.
The movie may come with a new video conversion and different aspect ratio, but the DTS-HD MA soundtrack is the identical audio presentation as its high-def 2D counterpart, delivering a wide and amazingly expansive front soundstage.
A wall of sound displays extraordinary channel separation with excellent warmth and fidelity. With crystal-clear clarity and often astonishing room-penetration, dynamic range is precise and extensive, separating the highs from the mids with distinct detailing that never loses focus. The attack/accident scene inside the tunnel terrifically demonstrates how remarkable this high-rez track is, providing the smallest piece of shrapnel to be heard as clear as the loudest crash without distorting. The low-end is mostly in the mid-bass area, but its packs a deep, impactful punch with a few amusingly thunderous moments that rattle the walls. Amid the chaos and mayhem, vocals are intelligible and well-prioritized.
Rear activity is also exceptional and spectacular, continuously providing random sounds, action and some light commotion in the background. Bullets whiz by in the sides and overhead. Glass shatters in all directions and fills the room with debris. Evil robots jump like grasshoppers behind the listener, to the left and right, and sometimes directly right in front. Even quiet scenes come with some form of activity in the back, like the distant noise of people arguing, cars driving by in traffic or dogs barking at nothing. Pans and directionality are flawless and convincingly discrete, creating a 360° soundfield that's terrifically immersive and ultimately makes the movie a good deal of fun to watch.
All the special features gathered on the DVD copy of the movie.
Lacking all the political subtext and metaphysical questions asked in Isaac Asimov's original stories, 'I, Robot' is still a surprisingly entertaining flick when taken as a straightforward popcorn sci-fi actioner. From director Alex Proyas, the movie is visually stunning with an amusing mystery and lots of humor thanks to Will Smith's usual confident performance. The 3D Blu-ray unfortunately is not at all impressive, and the format doesn't really benefit the film, except towards the end. The lossless audio is the same demo-worthy presentation as before, but supplemental material is greatly lacking. Still, fans of the movie will find little to complain about and are more likely to be pleased with the package.