Friday, July 30, 2004

Movie: I, Robot (2004)

A few too many 85-degree days in a row will drive a man to do odd things. Like see a movie he has no real interest in just to get out of the sun for a while.

I could tell from the previews that this film had little connection with the source material. (According to the credits, it was ‘suggested’ by Isaac Asimov’s book.) As my nephew Luke astutely put it, if this movie were really based on Asimov, Will Smith would be the villain. The author’s Lije Bailey novels, about a detective paired with a robot partner, are crying out to be adapted for the movies. Instead, his classic short story collection gets contorted into a futuristic cop thriller. It goes to show the power of a good title. I, ROBOT is much catchier than THE CAVES OF STEEL.

It’s not a bad movie, just a boring one. It’s not imaginatively written. Will Smith does cop stuff straight out of THE NAKED GUN. It’s not imaginatively directed by Alex Proyas, whose DARK CITY remains a haunting film. It’s not even imaginatively cast. I’ve seen Bruce Greenwood, Chi McBride and James Cromwell in their respective roles too many times before. Bridget Moynahan tries to shade Susan Calvin (why did they have to keep Asimov’s names?) with some complexity, including the sense that the character is far more at ease around robots than humans, but the movie essentially ignores her. Shia LeBeouf turns up for reasons as yet undetermined.

To my surprise, the writers do come up with an explanation for the robot mayhem that’s at least somewhat consistent with Asimov’s three laws of robotics. Too bad it’s not interesting as well. Still, the robots are cool, and there are plenty of dandy gewgaws stuffed into the corners of the frame. And it’s two hours of uninterrupted air conditioning. You could do worse.

This project has been kicking around Hollywood for ages. Harlan Ellison wrote a screenplay based on Asimov’s book in the late ‘70s that has taken on legendary status. It was published in book form in 1994, featuring remarkable illustrations by artist Mark Zug.

Other than Ellison’s opening, in which Asimov’s three laws bubble up on screen as if viewed through water, none of his work made it into the finished film. From what I know about Harlan, I’m sure he’s happy about that. I don’t think his script is entirely successful; the framing device cribbed from CITIZEN KANE isn’t that involving, and the ending is abstruse enough to make THE MATRIX look like a Three Stooges short. But Ellison has an intuitive understanding of Asimov’s work. He weaves the plot around four of the Susan Calvin stories, including ‘Liar!’ and ‘Robbie,’ dramatizing them in a way that maintains the essence of Asimov’s voice. Maybe they can make this movie and call it something else.

TV: The Daily Show

It’s always mandatory viewing, but never more so than during the Democratic National Convention. Jon Stewart's segment on the cable news networks’ coverage of the event, specifically MSNBC’s handling of Al Sharpton’s speech, was shocking as well as funny.