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The path of Egyptian-born director Alex Proyas is an interesting one. Having moved to Australia as an infant (with his family, of course), Proyas eventually forged a career directing music videos. A few small films were dotted along the way but it wasn’t until the 1994 smash The Crow that the pseudo-Aussie made his mark in Hollywood. Four years later he had another cult hit on his hands with Dark City, which basically gave him license to chase whatever took his fancy. I, Robot then became his direction of choice, with the well-received Australian flick Garage Days slotted in between.

The futuristic sci-fi genre has been explored by many over the years, yet there always seems to be enough scope for originality. With a less talented man at the helm a concept such as I, Robot may have fallen flat on its face. Sure, it’s not entirely true to the Asimov short stories on which the film is based, yet you can’t go past the deft touch of this particularly choosy director.

I, Robot: Special Edition
Movie
The year is 2035. Robotics have become an accepted part of society, with machines now taking care of household duties, child-minding and even postal delivery. The world is poised to undertake the biggest robot rollout yet; a new generation of super-bot called NS5, much to the dislike of detective Spooner (Will Smith). Eventually we find out about Spooner’s past which explains his inherent lack of faith in robotics as a whole, but in the early going he’s just a man with an unwarranted grudge.

The robots themselves are governed by a simple three law principle:

1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2) A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law.
3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.

Spooner becomes involved when he is left a digitised message from apparent suicide victim and US Robotics founder Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell, bless his heart). Upon a little investigation Spooner is convinced those pesky robots have had a hand in Lanning’s death. This conflicts with just about everyone in Spooner’s life. His police chief (Chi McBride) won’t have a bar of Spooner’s constant anti-bot rants, US Robotics chief Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood) demands his silence and his USR escort Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) can’t understand what he’s on about. That is, until they meet Sonny, a unique robot with intelligence much higher than the NS5 models. Sonny clues Spooner in on a few missing pieces, opening up a whole can of, erm, robots soon after.

The choice to cast Will Smith is understandable. His star power undeniable and box-office cred already proven to the hilt, Smith was a logical choice for a film such as this. But why is it that things just don’t quite gel as they should. You may be able to buy his whole nostalgic, rogue-cop persona (within minutes of the opening Spooner slips on a pair of 2004 Converse All-Stars) yet as a 2035 detective he’s a lot less convincing. This should have been more of a thinking man’s role, but when you’re expecting will just to shoot the crap out of anything in his way the story seems to lose it’s effect. Bridget Moynahan is equally as disappointing, quickly becoming a magnet for dull female supporting roles.

What manages to get them by is a look and feel that rivals any top-line sci-fi flick. There are the obligatory metallic visuals but they are coupled with some brilliant looking landscapes and city skylines. Add to that a perfectly designed robot race and you’ve already kick-started the action. Once you forget just how poorly cast the two leads may be then you’re well on the way to enjoying what is solid entertainment. It’s quite easy to turn your mind off and just let the big action sequences wash over you, but there is also the opportunity to pick out some clever little uses of social commentary; phones are now almost microscopically small, inflation has lead to astronomical prices for basic necessities and remote controls have become virtually obsolete. And of course, what big-budget film wouldn’t be complete without the usual product placement. In the first act it’s all the rage, with the likes of Audi, FedEx and Converse all getting some valuable air time.

On the whole there’s a lot to like about the film. There’s certainly a lot more scope to make it much more of a thinking man’s piece, yet it’s not entirely a dumbed down action flick either. Held up by some well constructed set pieces and the great looking robots (with Sonny played by Alan Tudyk in Andy Serkis fashion), you’ll get a lot of value out of this one regardless of your mindset.

I, Robot: Special Edition
Video
Thankfully we are treated to a magnificent 2.35:1, 16:9 enhanced transfer for this release. For a film relying heavily on the carefully planned visuals, it’s great to see it done justice with an equally impressive transfer. The sharpness is incredible, while the colours stand out well despite the dominance of grey overall. Possibly the best examples of how well the transfer handles the visuals can be seen when Spooner addresses the line-up of robots early on. It’s a tricky looking, almost entirely digital shot but unless you’ve got the sharpest eye in the business you won’t notice any defects nor the dreaded “standout CGI” moments (LXG, anyone?) that crop up every now and then. This is easily one of the best transfers of recent times, and I’d go as far as saying it’s basically faultless. Where to from here?

Audio
Backing up the impressive visuals is a rich soundtrack, arriving in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 form. It’s a very rich sounding mix in both forms, though the DTS track is slightly superior in the more intense moments, with the Dolby Digital mix tending to go flat on occasion. Surround use is good, though most of the regular action is planted firmly in the front. The mix is at its peak during the house demolition and the freeway sequence, where the sub also lets loose.

Dialogue is clear and thankfully can be heard over the rest of the action, which is not always the case, especially with DTS mixes. The Marco Beltrami (Blade II, Hellboy) score is quite impressive, with some catchy main themes flowing right through. It’s a pretty subtle score overall, however, yet mixes in with the rest of the audio mix extremely well.

Extras
The double-disc edition is definitely the way to go here, with a whole extra disc adding some real value to the package. On disc one there are three separate audio commentaries, the first of which is with director Alex Proyas and writer Akiva Goldsman. This is a pretty bland sort of commentary yet for fans of the film there’s enough value in here to make it worth listening to. The pair apparently aren’t in the same room together but the mix is good enough that it doesn’t become a problem.

The second commentary is with a whole host of technical beings, from production designers to editors to CG gurus, too numerous to mention. Again the track is mixed from everyone’s best snippets but for the technically minded there’s a lot to like about this one. Obviously a lot of the focus is on the creation of the robots and Sonny in particular, which is great because it’s easily the most interesting part of the film from a design perspective.

I, Robot: Special Edition
The third commentary is with composer Marco Beltrami. He gives us a background on how he became a composer then delves into the way he worked on the film. The score kicks in on its own when necessary, then Beltrami speaks during the intervals. All commentaries sit pretty much in the centre speaker, with the background sounds of the film (or score) mixed into the left and right channels. It’s an interesting way of putting it together but effective nonetheless.

Still on disc one, there is also a making of documentary which runs for a little over twelve minutes. It’s the kind of thing which airs on TV not long before the film’s release, so in that regard it’s your typical making of puff piece. The mix of interviews, clips from the film and outtakes just isn’t all that attractive in this kind of package anymore, though the second disc is where the real meat is at.

The only other extra on the disc is a stills gallery, which interestingly couldn’t be accessed via a DVD-Rom when reviewing the extras. Still the thirty-odd shots from the production are a good way to round out what is the single-disc retail version of the film.

The second disc is a much more interesting journey, which has a lot to do with a clunky menu system on the disc. There’s the option to play all the extras in one go, but you’ll eventually find yourself directed to another menu with a whole bunch of options after a while. You can also jump to specific categories, but again you may not be sure everything has been covered when you’re directed back out again. Still, it’s the content we’re after and in that sense the effort it top notch.

The first section is entitled Day Out Of Days: The I, Robot Production Diaries. The lack of a play all button on some menus is frustrating, though if you choose the first option the disc will play through that whole section anyway it seems. In this section we see a whole bunch of scenes from behind the main camera and get a feel for how the shots are set up. It’s pretty bland with just the on-set audio rolling on, yet it’s a good way to see how things work on a big budget flick.

The CGI & Design section deals with most of the technical aspects, which add value to what was said in the technical commentary on disc one. We see early designs of sets and landscapes, the evolution of the robots and, of course, the path of translating Alan Tudyk’s performance to Sonny on screen. It gets pretty tech-heavy at times which may lose some viewers, but for those interested in this kind of stuff the footage is priceless. Check out the green screen shot of a civilian army fighting imaginary robots. Brilliant!

I, Robot: Special Edition
Next up is the Sentient Machines: Robotic Behaviour featurette, which really goes to the core of robotics as an industry. We learn about how it all started (with a mechanical duck one of the early breakthroughs) and move on to things like robotic vacuum cleaners through to a look to the future. This is heavy stuff, so you’d want to be really interested in this to sit through the whole thing.

Still going strong, the next piece is Three Laws Safe: Conversations About Science Fiction & Robots. Screenwriter Jeff Vintar talks about the influence of Isaac Asimov and the robot short stories as well as exploring the three laws theory and beyond. We also hear from writer Akiva Goldsman again about this version of the robot story, who delves write into the nuts and bolts of robotics. Rounding out this section is a piece from Asimov’s daughter and Jennifer Brehl, Asimov’s editor. They talk about him and his vision overall, giving a bit of a personal touch to the man who created those famous robot stories. Strange, but worth a look.

The final section is the Filmmaker’s Toolbox, which contains a collection of deleted scenes plus some “how to” visual effects pieces. There are four deleted scenes in total, with an exchange between Spooner and Lanning the highlight. Two alternate ending sequences are part of the package, one which merely extends the current version and another which is an animatic of what could have been the final scene. Neither would have added much to the film. The “how to” pieces are merely shots which add layer upon layer of the effects, supposedly in an attempt to show budding CGI creators the way to do things. Interesting if you’re heading in that direction professionally.

The interesting omission out of all this is the theatrical trailer. Although the trailer probably didn’t do justice to the film as a whole it is still puzzling as to why it was omitted. Of course it’s not a major disaster but some viewers tend to like the trailers included, and sadly that’s not the case with this incredibly comprehensive collection of extras.

I, Robot: Special Edition
Overall
A step above your mindless action epic, I, Robot really delivers as a film. The entertainment value is there, the visual aspects are stunning and if you can get past Will Smith as a 2035 detective then you’ll no doubt stay along for the ride. The DVD has to be one of the best from 2004, with an incredible transfer, a great soundtrack and an extras package that covers just about everything you’ll be looking for. Overall this is a sensational release, one that should really sell well when it hits shelves very soon.


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