Film

TRIUMPH OF (THE) WILL

BRIAN D. JOHNSON July 26 2004
Film

TRIUMPH OF (THE) WILL

BRIAN D. JOHNSON July 26 2004

TRIUMPH OF (THE) WILL

Will Smith’s I, Robot owes as much to iMac as it does to I. Asimov

Film

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

SUMMER’S IN FULL SWING, and Hollywood is busy saving the world with a product line of sleek superheroes, from Spider-Man to Catwoman. The latest prototype doesn’t wear tights, or come from a comic book. He’s been spun from a few DNA strands of Isaac Asimov’s vintage science fiction. But with a Herculean body, a ridiculous car, and a mysterious trauma in his past, he seems to fit the superhero profile. I, Robot’s detective Del Spooner (Will Smith) is a cop in the year 2035 waging a lonely battle against an evil corporation that’s campaigning to put a personal robot in every home. Spooner hates robots,

suspects they’re up to no good. He’s a rugged individualist rebelling against the notion of a world ruled by product. Which is ironic considering that the movie begins with an onslaught of product placement.

As Smith’s character awakes from a recurring nightmare, he parades his buff physique as if in an underwear ad. We watch him shower, get dressed, and open a box of black 2004 Converse All Star hi-tops—“a thing of beauty,” he coos. Then a FedEx robot shows up at his door. But the biggest product placement is Smith himself. Still retaining the body, and the aura, that he developed for Ali, he makes an immensely likeable action hero, an actor who puts his physicality on the line with deadpan charm. Cool, casual and cocky, he’s a black antidote to the intensity of Tom, Brad and Arnie— and to Tobey’s Spider-Man, that neurotic white guy with the precarious self-esteem.

But I, Robot, a mishmash of sci-fi formula and tinny special effects, is no Spider-Man 2. Filmed in Vancouver, it’s set in Chicago, re-imagined as Metropolis on a dried-up Lake Michigan. The mechanical plot, with glints of Blade Runner and The Terminator, concerns a robotics empire run by a sinister CEO (Canada’s Bruce Greenwood). As he launches a new line of personal robots, amassed in Third Reich legions, his chief scientist is killed. Spooner suspects he’s been murdered by a rogue robot named Sonny (voiced with creepy naïveté by Alan Tudyk). Sonny looks like the other robots—a svelte skeleton cased in transparent flesh with pale blue eyes—but he’s more human, and he’s found a loophole in the “three laws of robotics” that protect us from them.

With its soft-machine design, I, Robot

owes as much to iMac as it does to I. Asimov. This tale of a robophobic cop grappling with a Frankenstein monster offers visions of iApocalypse and iRevolution. Along the way, our hero thaws out an icy iBabe (a robotics shrink played by Bridget Moynahan), and hopes to save humanity by lancing an ovumlike motherbrain with a small phallic canister of potent fluid. Salvation as impregnation. Leaving us with a mushy compromise between man and machine, and a murky vision of a roboChrist, I, Robot isn’t as smart as it thinks it is. But Will Smith is the ultimate soft machine.

Briefly, that brings us to The Door in the Floor, the kind of literary drama that’s supposed to provide grown-ups with a quiet alternative to Hollywood’s whiz-bang world

of special effects. Oddly enough, like I, Robot, it’s the tale of a man haunted by a tragic car accident. Based on just the first third ofjohn Irving’s A Widow for One Year, it’s about a famous children’s author, Ted (Jeff Bridges), and his wife, Marion (Kim Basinger), whose marriage has been shattered by the death of their two sons. Ted hires a teenage assistant for the summer (Jon Foster), who becomes his wife’s boy toy while Ted idly consorts with the latest in a string of women he’s persuaded to model nude for life-drawing exercises. As sexual comedy careens into tragedy, there’s much to love: director Tod Williams’ sensitive direction, Basinger’s dazed sexuality, the water-colour touch of Foster’s shy performance as the callow youth—and above all Bridges’ offhand genius as the shambling ruin of a writer wrapped in the affluence of his own ego. But that ego swallows the story whole. The female characters are either preposterous or pathetic. And the writerly elements of Irving’s narrative dovetail with such manic symmetry that, in its own way, The Door in the Floor feels as unconvincing as I, Robot. CT1