When he awakens in 2035, rubs his sore shoulder and showers without a curtain, the man named Spooner (Will Smith) seems to be I, Robot director Alex Proyas' way of telling us: Here is a person of flesh and blood, like you and I the very antithesis of what's in store in this movie about, ah, robots.
Spooner's even got some animus against those machines, which three decades hence are artificially intelligent and well-spoken humanoids, nearly ubiquitous and completely obedient servants who've assumed society's routine labor. Governed by the laws of robotics (as formulated by Isaac Asimov in the short stories that inspired the film), the robots are thought incapable of harming humans by everyone but Spooner, who with zero evidence profiles them as wrongdoers.
Though Spooner is African-American, this irony doesn't interest Proyas much, or for long; at first it just sets up a story about Spooner's maverick investigation into the death of a robotics scientist who's ruled a suicide but whom Spooner believes is a murder victim. And that story is merely Proyas' path into a film that's surprisingly complex if thematically promiscuous, especially for a would-be action blockbuster.
The murder mystery, complete with corporate conspiracy by a robot manufacturer, takes up a Jesus theme: Spooner's du jour partner is a robotics engineer named Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), and the suspect is a fugitive 'bot named Sonny ("created by my father"), a sacrificial being who defies death to fulfill his destiny. There's even a visit to a limbo of decommissioned robots -- lost electronic souls in a postindustrial purgatory.
It's still not enough for Proyas, whose crepuscular dreamings birthed The Crow and Dark City. Eventually the latest model of robot revolts against its masters (that's us), and the uprising conjures metaphors: Are the robots immigrant hordes? A street gang? An occupying imperial army, whose soldiers talk of saving humankind from itself?
With a screenplay by Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman, Proyas has made a diverting film that's not much concerned with thematic cohesion, or even provocation; its questions about robot consciousness have been asked before. Mostly, I, Robot succeeds in creating an impression. It's one you can read in Will Smith's mug: His Spooner is long-faced and world-weary, sardonic where Smith is usually playful, the character taking refuge in his retro tastes in shoes, taverns and stereos. He lives in a world -- indeed, I, Robot was made in a world -- where it's a given that, like it or not, robots can effectively be human. The impression that lingers is one of a future in which, with humans or without, robots will work things out for themselves.
How far science-fiction movies have come in 50 years, and not just because we make special effects from ones and zeroes rather than rubber suits and exquisitely crafted, if pleasingly smashable, scale models of Tokyo. Godzilla opens here July 23, and what you'll hear about it -- besides the elimination of the infamous Raymond Burr footage Hollywood added, and the restoration of 40 Japanese-shot minutes it chopped -- is the return of the film's anti-nuclear sermonizing, which its original American distributor thoughtfully excised for U.S. release.
It's all true -- but not what's most interesting about this 1954 time capsule.
Godzilla opens with the fiery erasure of several ships at sea, by a still-unseen monster; a fishing village is reduced to matchsticks. Japan turns anxious, and turns to science. But the culprit is no stranger: Gojira, says an ancient villager, is a familiar antagonist, once appeased by human sacrifice. The scientist Yamane, however, feels for the Jurassic beast, and rather than kill him would study how he survived the H-bomb tests that woke him.
In short, Godzilla might be a 150-foot-tall pot-bellied menace, waddling around a deserted nighttime Tokyo like a bratty toddler through a balsa-wood train set, but he's got a lot in common with the Japanese of the 1950s. That might explain not only Yamane's feelings, but those of director Ishiro Honda, who renders Godzilla's underwater death sequence like the tragic finale of a surreal opera. Godzilla, like Hiroshima, ends up skeletized, a victim of a super-weapon, and his portrayal here foreshadows his transformation in future films into a beloved if amoral defender of Japan, a sort of saurian Man With No Name. He's both Japan itself and what threatens Japan's fragile existence; a past the country is reluctant to discard; a scapegoat for nuclear anxiety, his thunderous footsteps tolling like distant ordnance.
Godzilla might have little in common with I, Robot, but what separates them most is this: In Godzilla, humans are considered culpable even though we didn't create the monster, only ticked him off; in I, Robot, even manufacturing the menace from scratch doesn't really leave us on the hook because, helplessly godlike, we've created something that's gone off and evolved on its goddamn own.