Published on June 23rd, 2020 | by Kim Kurtenbach0
Because You’ve Seen “Terminator 2” So Many Times
Remember I,Robot? Kim does, and he thinks that if you’re sick of getting your sci-fi/action fix from T2, you should revisit the Will Smith vehicle.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day gets re-watched a lot. Perhaps it’s not as good as the original Terminator (1984), but it’s a lot more fun, containing bigger laughs. Plus, it’s a landmark of special effects. It’s also the end of the line, even though various directors and cast ensembles made four more movies in the franchise. Watching the ‘sequels’ for the first time is kinda fun but, as a re-watch, you’re better off to just put on T2 again.
So what if you don’t feel like it this time? Honestly, you’re pretty much screwed. But, I think I have a reasonable suggestion that meets the following requirements: a sci-fi/action movie about a determined renegade fighting against the system, with a killer robot and threat of corporate overlords and lethal machine uprising. Plus chase scenes, gun-fire, explosions, et. al and an emotional connection to one special robot that’s still a killer—but the good kind that doesn’t want to kill all humans. Like I said, you’re kinda screwed, but not if you haven’t recently thought about I, Robot (2004).
Will Smith leads a cast that includes Bridget Moynahan, James Cromwell, Bruce Greenwood and the scene-stealing Alan Tudyk as Sonny, the robot with human emotions. In Chicago, 2035, there is one robot for every five humans on the planet. Robots as personal assistants and service industry workers have become the social norm. Detective Spooner (Smith) has been called to the scene of a suicide victim, Dr. Alfred Lanning (Cromwell), an innovative tech genius at USR Corp., and the creator of robots. Spooner hates all new technology–especially the robots. With the help of Lanning’s assistant, Dr. Susan Calvin (Moynahan), Spooner is soon vindicated from his reputation as a paranoid nut when, for the first time in history, a robot becomes suspect in a crime. For those of you who have not seen I, Robot or simply don’t remember the details from years ago, I will halt my summary to avoid spoiling the movie.
It isn’t so much the settings or plot of I, Robot that resembles T2. Rather, it’s the overall themes and similarities in concepts with both the stories, and the actual production of the movies that makes them companions of sorts. The source material for I, Robot is strong, as the ideas were plucked from the works of American science fiction writer, Issac Asimov, who wrote the Three Laws of Robotics in 1942. Those laws are:
- First Law – a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- Second Law – a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- Third Law – a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
These laws become of central importance to the story, as they set the seemingly infallible parameters for how the massive system of robot workers are kept in check.
Both movies have a very clear message: despite our noble intentions to continually advance technology for benevolent and altruistic reasons, the inevitable result of an artificial intelligence (Skynet/USR) is to see humans as a problem that must be enslaved or eliminated. It’s a terribly dystopian thought. So we look for someone to save the day, be it John Connor and his Terminator, or Detective Spooner and his robot ally. The themes of both movies might lie heavy, but the action and spectacle of them give us exactly what we want from movies like this–exciting escapism from reality.
T2 was always going to turn out exactly like James Cameron wanted in his visions. Since T2, Cameron has only make three movies in thirty years; True Lies (1994), Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009). They are all incredibly self-indulgent and extravagant. T2 was the start of Cameron’s trademark blockbuster formula, to the extent that the budget he had in 1991 ($102M) is nearly the same as the budget for I, Robot thirteen years later ($120M).
I, Robot looks really good on that budget because director Alex Proyas had already proven he could make daring and exhilarating movies with The Crow (1994) and Dark City (1998). For I, Robot he simply channeled all that ability into going effectively in the opposite direction–bright, open–to best create a world for Will Smith.
Proyas then took great care to illicit a performance by Allan Tudyk that is Andy Serkis-level impressive. Any of the robots can appear either scary or angelic, simply by changing the lighting and their motivations. It is what illustrates the conundrum of whether these robots are angels or demons–T-800s or T-1000s. Tudyk’s performance brings convincing emotion to the limited facial expressions and human gestures a robot can express, and it’s more than enough to begin wondering what it is, exactly, to be human. Detective Spooner bitterly asks him, in an effort to make Sonny realize he’s more toaster than man, “Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot turn a canvas into a beautiful masterpiece?” Sonny simply responds with, “Can you?”. In the same scene, Sonny becomes obsessively intrigued by Spooner’s gesture of a wink. It reminded me of the Terminator’s interest in John’s tears, and why humans cry.
I, Robot is a detective movie with a murder to solve that will help stop an unwanted future. T2 is a cat-and-mouse chase movie with complex overtones of a looming dystopia. But plenty of similarities create reasonable comparison, such as both having iconic action superstars in the lead role. One is human with robot parts, the other a robot developing human emotions. They both shoot guns on a motorcycle, they both use their catchphrase (“I’ll be back”/”Aw, hell no”), they’re both there to save the day. Arnold has some rich lines in T2 that get big laughs, but it comes across very natural and unforced. Smith is a little less subtle in his constant attempts to be witty and cute, but it mostly lands. Strangely, Smith had originally wanted to play the role straight–no humour–just like Proyas wanted. But when audience feedback on early screen tests with Smith playing for some laughs came in, it was the highest rating in the studio’s history and the decision was made: the jokes would stay in. I wonder what this movie would have looked like as a cerebral thriller with Smith playing it straight, and Proyas going all Crow and Dark City with the look.
Each movie is an impressive spectacle in large part because of their incredible CGI effects, although T2 wins that by a landslide for being the first of its kind. I, Robot basically just took what George Lucas had done with The Phantom Menace (1999) and Attack of the Clones (2002) and made it better. Much better. In fact, the ending even features a set piece you’ll definitely associate with things from the Star Wars universe and the Terminator franchise.
You’ve seen T2 so many times for good reason. Replacement alternatives are basically limited to more Arnie movies, the Back to the Future trilogy (which only checks the time-travel box, really) or some wild and often disappointing guesses. I, Robot did very well at the box office, tripling its budget, but it never seems to make the cut when people are looking for sci-fi action to watch. Yes, some fat could have been trimmed (the demolition of Lanning’s house) and some Will Smith could have been toned down to more subtle, T-800 levels of expression. But saving the world from machine overlords is so much damn fun, you’ll be happily entertained by this T2 substitute.