Man & Machine 

This week at the movies: one killer robot and one big geek.

Long before Will Smith made movies about gutsy, cocky humans battling aliens and the future, and long before Isaac Asimov started writing intelligent stories about man s interactions with robots, there was a play written in 1922 by Czech Karel Capek called RUR. This play, little seen today, remains important and distinguished because it coined the term robot. Consequently, it was also one of the first times that theater dealt with technological apprehension. RUR. supposes that someday we will artificially craft a soul, and the consequences will be dire.
Science fiction, at its best, reveals human nature against a backdrop of technological fantasy that should both frighten and enlighten. At the risk of appearing lowbrow, I should admit that Alien and Aliens accomplished this for me, as did Star Trek II, IV, and VI, Gattaca, and, believe it or not, Godzilla. Often, these films feature a cautionary message for humans: Don t go there. Don t clone. Don t use nuclear weapons, Don t overexploit the earth. Don t whatever. Jeff Goldblum sums it up well in Jurassic Park: Just because you can do something doesn t mean you should. It doesn t mean you shouldn t; just think about it first. Asimov s work I, Robot is a 1950 book of short stories is all about those questions and the consequences.
Picture it: Chicago in 2035. It s a different world, what with cars that drive themselves and robots carrying our groceries. But lest one get spooked by all the robots running around, remember that every robot is programmed with three laws: 1) robots may never intentionally harm a human; 2) robots must always obey human orders, unless they conflict with the first law; and 3) they must preserve themselves, unless their actions conflict with the first or second laws.
But police detective Del Spooner (Smith) doesn t exactly trust those laws, having once been involved in a tragic accident that killed a young girl who could have been saved by a robot. Spooner s so-called bigotry is well-known on the force, so when the apparent suicide of robot innovator Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell) looks more like a robot murder to Spooner, nobody believes him. Even when a rogue, seemingly sentient robot goes berserk after hiding out at the scene of the crime, Spooner s still dismissed as prejudiced. Thankfully, there s a spirited, beautiful scientist around: Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), who eventually buys into Spooner s robot conspiracy theories but not before they quickly establish a cool cop/cold scientist prickly rapport, as she is as disgusted by his flippant posturing as he is her clinical aloofness. Together they unlock the mystery behind Sonny, the robot murder suspect who would rather discuss dreams and the nature of humanity than answer sticky police interrogations. But by then it s too late. Robots are taking over the world.
I, Robot is not great science fiction, and it disappoints on both literary and cinematic levels. As with any science fiction that favors action over idea, like The Matrix trilogy that disintegrated as it went along, I, Robot does pretty okay when Smith is shooting up the bad bots or engaging in high-speed chases but founders when it comes to investigating that special sense of otherworldliness that grounds movies like these in something other than melodrama. If anything endures from, say, the philosophically hollow Matrix Reloaded, it s not the dialogue. It s that famous chase scene, slow moving bullets, and Keanu Reeves battling hundreds of Hugo Weavings. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, we remember what? Apes throwing a bone that becomes a spaceship, HAL s creepy voice, and the reflection of the vast computer in the astronaut s helmet. Ideas!
Viewers shouldn t, though, expect much cerebral from a typical rebel-cop-loses-badge-when-he s-the-only-one-who-really-knows-what s-going-on-but-then-saves-the-day-and-gets-to-stick-it-to-The-Man-along-the-way kind of movie. But Asimov s name is posthumously attributed to the story and that makes I, Robot seem kinda like a rip-off. The questions are limited to sound bites in between explosions and robot-wrassling, and the great debate about artificial intelligence is fairly limited to the banter between one sassy cop and whoever is standing between him and a target.
Smith s non-chemistry with the unconvincing Moynahan doesn t help things in the other direction popcorn moviedom nor does the fakiness of the very-animated looking robots or the anti-cimax of the final tableaux. For a story that should be exploring humanity, I, Robot looks and feels entirely artificial. At the risk of sounding bigoted, I think a few more human interactions wouldn t have hurt anyone. I, Unimpressed. Bo List

A hit at this year s Sundance Film Festival, Napoleon Dynamite is an example of what that now overexposed festival should be about: Finding an audience for offbeat American regional filmmaking.
Directed by unknown Jared Hess and featuring exactly zero cred-seeking Hollywood stars, this lightly plotted tale of an Idaho high-school geek extraordinaire has the charmingly homemade feel and palpable freedom that you just don t get from a studio picture, and it has the sense of place modest brick homes overlooking miles of mountain-bracketed pasture, chicken farms, pet llamas, etc. that marks American regional filmmaking at its best.
Napoleon (Jon Heder) is a student at tiny Preston High School (a real school where Hess also attended) and the kind of geek other geeks shy away from: With his gangly frame, frizzy red fro, pale skin, huge wire-rim glasses, ill-fitting blue jeans, and tucked-in assortment of geek-chic T-shirts, Napoleon is a constant sight gag and figure so singular he s simultaneously sympathetic and repelling.
A constantly put-upon loner, Napoleon has no skills beyond getting pounded into the lockers by school jocks and no friends until the arrival of slow-witted new kid Pedro (Efrem Ramirez). At home, he s terrorized by an even creepier older brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell), who spends his days eating nachos and scouring the Internet for romantic prospects, and by his lost-in-time Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), who makes ends meet as a door-to-door salesman and pines for the faded glories of the 1982 high-school football season.
This wanna-be cult movie doesn t exactly tap the outsider-as-hero theme to the same degree as Rushmore or Donnie Darko or even the more ambivalent Ghost World. It s a freak show, Ö la Todd Solandz Welcome to the Dollhouse (Napoleon is nothing if not the spiritual cousin to Heather Matarazzo s Dawn Wiener) or Harmony Korine s Gummo. But unlike those films, an overriding mission or worldview doesn t drive Napoleon Dynamite. Welcome to the Dollhouse was a social horror movie, misanthropic to the core. Gummo, by contrast, was an immaculately filmed wonder. It may have alienated some audiences, but it found beauty and mystery in its milieu of small-town, underclass outcasts.
The rather homely looking Napoleon Dynamite doesn t have nearly so much on the brain. It s a minor indie entertainment with minor pleasures, chiefly a keen feel for slapstick and other physical humor (Napoleon s climactic one-man dance routine is smartly filmed mostly in longshots and is pretty awe-inspiring) and set design so shabbily lived-in (wood paneling, crock pots, bad carpeting) that some viewers may find it achingly realistic.
Though there s plenty to quibble over (with its broad ethnic humor, the film seems as awestruck by the presence of racial Others as its characters are), Napoleon Dynamite is an effective little deadpan comedy. The film tries its best to be sunny in the depiction of a character and setting that could just as easily be one big downer. It generally succeeds, but one cringes at the thought of what greets the skill-less, under-socialized Napoleon at the end of the school year. n

Chris Herrington

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