Saturday, September 11, 2004

Movie Review: I, Robot

You knew that eventually, we would run out of Phillip K. Dick novels to turn into summer blockbusters, and someone would go looking for another author from Sci Fi's Golden Age to exploit on celluloid.

What am I talking about? Dick wrote something like 200 novels, novellas, and short stories! They can't have run out.

Then why on Earth is this summer's Will Smith film entitled I, Robot? Why is it "suggested" by the short story collection of the same name by Isaac Asimov? I mean, Asimov wasn't one of those action-type science fiction authors -- he was a philosopher. One reason he wrote the stories in the original I, Robot collection -- complete with three rules of robotics that were meant to keep robots from ever harming humans -- was because he was sick of seeing stories where robots turn on their masters.

Like this one. I, Robot is a competent enough entertainment product, but somewhat lacking in depth. The story in a nutshell: in a not-so-distant future, robots are commonplace household items, doing the work that humans can't or won't do. Del Spooner (Will Smith) is a cop with a robot problem. He's old-school, to the extent that he insists on driving his car manually, has a remote control for his stereo, and thinks that robots are "up to no good".

Spooner's called to the scene of the apparent suicide of a robotics scientist, where the "suicide note" comes specifically addressed to him. Like a space-age Mark Fuhrman, Spooner's convinced that a robot has to be behind the scientist's death.

Since it's not really a summer cop movie without a mismatched partner, Spooner finds himself saddled with "robopsychologist" Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynihan) who keeps on reminding him that the crime he has in mind is impossible because the robots are restrained from ever harming a human being, or even letting a human being come to harm (that "three laws" thing again).

Calvin may think it's impossible for robots to harm humans, but you can all bet that Will Smith ain't packing a gun for nothing. In the movie version of I, Robot, the three laws of robotics have more loopholes than the tax code, and the requisite action pieces ensue with the Fresh Prince feeding an immense number of CGI robots a diet of hot lead.

I, Robot works because of Smith, probably the best movie star on the planet. Smith has great timing, both comic and otherwise, and enormous screen presence that makes him a pleasure to watch, no matter how implausible the film's plot. We've seen this role from Smith before (Wise cracking cop with an attitude? You don't say!) but he puts us through the paces well, a good mix of edginess and charisma.

The big difference between a movie star and an actor is that the viewer is invested in a movie star, out of all proportion to how well the star's character is written. An actor tries to become the character, the movie star makes the character become him. Since we already "know" the movie star, we don't need the script to tell us how to feel about the character.

A lot of people complain that Ben Affleck is a bad actor, when in reality, he's just a lousy movie star. Give Ben a well-written role (an almost-theoretical rarity, I'll admit) and the audience will care about Affleck's character. In a badly-written role, you'll cheer for Colin Farrell to kill Bennifer off in the first reel, so that Farrell and Jennifer Garner can continue the movie undisturbed. At some very basic level, Affleck's not above the material the way Tom Cruise, or Denzel Washington, or Will Smith is.

Oh, I was talking about I, Robot, wasn't I? Bridget Moynihan, as the Scully-style platonic scientist/partner, shows in this movie that she is, actually, an illegal clone of Sandra Bullock. Moynihan's performance in I, Robot is a close copy of Bullock's breakout performance in Demolition Man. The cloners sacrificed Bullock's bubbly humor to get an actress that's hotter than Sandra was in her prime. Hopefully, they also tatooed a warning on her reminding producers never to give Moynihan Sandra Bullock money, no matter how well test audiences in Fresno say they like her.

I'm not hatin', it's just sound general advice, like "Don't start a land war in Asia."

The IMDB link at the top of this entry revealed an interesting detail about the making of I, Robot. In the "trivia" section, you find out that this was a generic sci-fi script that was altered after the producers got the rights to Asimov's book. You also learn that "[w]riter Akiva Goldsman came on late in the process to tailor the script to Will Smith."

This is the first time I've been able to attach a name to a mysterious figure in my personal mythos: the Blaxploitation Script Doctor.

I'm sure you've noticed before, that sometimes films are altered by their makers to accomodate a black star. The first timeI really noticed it was in the movie Rising Sun, which had been adapted from a Michael Crichton book. The movie starred Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes as LAPD detectives assigned to the Japanese beat. Connery is the mentor-figure who's lived in Japan, Snipes plays a newly-appointed liaison type who's a neophyte to Japanese culture. The tension between the two is that Connery's character is forced to serve as Snipes' tourguide to the customs and psyche of the Japanese, while the younger cop is suspicious of the older man's asian ways and connections (don't look at me, I didn't write it).

In the book, Snipes' character is white -- technically Italian-American, but that's really irrelevant. So in writing the screenplay, the writers decided to goose up the script because Snipes ... isn't white. This meant throwing in lines like "Sempai? Is that like MASSA?!?" and a ludicrous scene where Snipes and Connery are saved from the Yakuza (IIRC) by a South Central street gang (Snipes' obligatory one liner? "Tough neighborhoods are America's last advantage"). The gang, you see, is willing to help the cops because Wesley used to play ball in the 'hood.

Riiiiight. This is a film that came out about a year after the Rodney King riots in L.A. I'm sure the Crips were all about helping the police just then.

I hate this kind of conversion. Ninety five percent of the scripts in Hollywood, you could substitute the race or ethnicity of the leading actor without having to change the script in any way. Sometimes, this actually happens, and the term of art is "color-blind casting".

But color-blind casting doesn't usually work out. There are often changes, most frequently to the romantic subplots of movies. Hollywood works so hard to put a little sex in their movies that they were supposedly trying to squeeze a love interest into the submarine in The Hunt for Red October, yet black movie stars are mysteriously chaste in their summer blockbusters.

Denzel Washington's one of the sexiest men on the planet. But it's a rule: brother can't get laid in most of his movies, because his female co-stars are (by and large) white women. In the Pelican Brief, the moviemakers actually had to eliminate a romantic subplot that was in the Grisham book in order to protect middle America from the prospect of Denzel sweatin' up some bedsheets with America's Sweetheart, Julia Roberts. In The Bone Collector (which, quite frankly, sounds like a porn movie title) Denzel's permitted a romantic-type relationship with Angelina Jolie ... because he's a QUADRIPLEGIC in the movie. The character has, like, partial use of two fingers on one of his hands.

That's cold. C'mon people, we've really got to get over this bullcrap some time.

[To go off on a tangent to my tangent, the one exception I can think of to the Denzel Rule was the Denzel Washington/Russell Crowe Sci Fi thriller Virtuosity, where Denzel finally bags the white woman, Kelly Lynch. A few points about this: Lynch was in the decline phase of her career, having peaked in 1989 when both Roadhouse and Drugstore Cowboy were released. This ain't Julia Roberts, kids. Also, this was basically a B-Movie, just one starring what may turn out to be 2 of the top 3 actors of our generation. Wonder how many times something like that has happened?]

Getting back to the Blaxploitation Script Doctor, his role is to do the opposite of color-blind casting. He adds ethnic/racial touches and dialogue to make the black character more "authentic" and (not coincidentally) to give the movie crossover appeal for a black audience.

So in I, Robot (you knew I'd get back to the movie, somehow), the BSD gives Smith a sweet potato pie cookin' grammy (because extended family is important to those people, y'know) and a semi-comic scene with an plus-sized asthmatic african american woman (asthma's big with them, y'know). His manually-operated stereo blasts Stevie Wonder instead of the Rolling Stones. He invests in "early 21st Century footwear" -- a pair of black Converse. And, of course, he doesn't get jiggy with the white woman, Moynihan (if you consider that a spoiler, you're pretty naive).

None of these changes is offensive (aside from the "no white women" policy, that is). I'm not blaming Akiva Goldman or saying that these details detracted from my enjoyment of I, Robot, at all. It's just a process that stinks.

In both I, Robot and Rising Sun, rewrites by the Blaxploitation Script Doctor could have added a new layer to the story: Rising Sun was a movie about racism and xenophobia; I, Robot was about a paranoid, technophobic cop. Throwing a black character into those situations, in the place of a white character, could have been an opportunity to make a larger statement about the nature of prejudice. For the most part, the BSDs "adapting" these scripts passed up those opportunities, opting instead for superficial changes and marketing opportunities.

If they weren't going to add anything to the story, why change the script at all?

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