Ah, did you think that my recent lack of sanity was going to make me forget about the New Classics this month? Rest assured, I haven't gone THAT out of mind just yet.
Any film that includes Sir Will Smith is at the top of my list (sir? yes, he's a "sir" to me). But I, Robot is extra-extra special because it also hosts a cast of some of my very favorite actors, namely, James Cromwell, Chi McBride, Alan Tudyk (as the voice of Sonny the robot), and a bit appearance by Shia LeBeouf.
This movie truly is a sci-fi lover's dream (and yes, I know that it's based on the book by Isaac Asimov, but this the (first and) last time you'll see it mentioned). It takes one of the very basic sci-fi elements--the robot--and combines it with, not only the (also) very basic idea that "robots can and will turn on the humans that created them", but also brings us into a world that we could easily see ourselves living in one day, which makes it all the more plausible.
But my most favorite aspect of this movie (no surprise here) is the portrayal of character. Any sci-fi story, whether it be in the written form or in film, absolutely does NOT interest me unless the characters are real and conflicted, both internally and externally, and it's not just about the brilliant futuristic tech. No matter how far we go into the future (or, conversely, into the past) humans are humans are humans are humans. They will always be your audience, thus the human characters must be believable, relatable, and worthy of our emotions. Otherwise, we won't give an ounce of ogre snot what happens. Period.
I, Robot opens with character. It starts with a heart-wrenching flashback in the form of a dream (which is much more effective in film than in novels, but that's another discussion for another day), which gives us an instant connection to the main character. It makes him human, and in this movie, that needs to be abundantly clear, since the conflict that comes later is very much about humans vs. machines.
Noteworthy, too, is that there is zero dialogue in the introduction. Spooner mutters a few things to himself, but for the most part, there is no talking. Now, whereas I strongly feel that flashbacks can be used in film and I supremely hate them in novels, I agree that opening with character, both in the film world and in the writing world, is usually most effective without loads and loads of dialogue because the audience/reader is smart, and can pick up on little hints you give them, and will decipher things much more clearly if they are shown and not told.
Those first few minutes of the movie are chock full of character, and hints about future happenings in the story. This is what entices us to keep watching. We feel for this character, and at the same time all these questions are popping up, begging to be answered.
We also see in those character-driven moments, a creative way of introducing the futuristic world that the story is set in, by showing different parts of Spooner's home that, while being familiar enough to recognize what they represent, are still foreign to us in the modern-day world. Which brings me to the second-most-important thing I look for in a sci-fi beginning: you'd better make it clear to me that this is a sci-fi as soon as you possibly can or you can bet your last banana you'll piss me off enough to stop reading/viewing.
(Yes, I did have a banana for breakfast this morning. Why do you ask?)
Does that seem overly harsh? Maybe. Personally, I'm uber-picky about openings, so take this as my opinion with a pound of salt. But, to be fair, I am not the only one who feels this way. In his book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card relays his experience with his short story, "Tinker", being rejected by Ben Bova at Analog:
"Analog publishes only science fiction," said Ben, so of course a fantasy like "Tinker" simply wouldn't do.
I was outraged--at first. "Tinker" had psionic powers, a colony planet, a far future time period--if that wasn't science fiction, what was?
Until I looked again at the story the way Ben Bova must have seen it. He knew nothing about the other stories in the cycle. "Tinker" included no mention of its taking place on a world colonized by human beings, and there was nothing alien about the landscape. It could have been an English village in 950 A.D.
A rustic setting always suggests fantasy; to suggest science fiction, you need sheet metal and plastic. You need rivets."
Now, of course there are exceptions to the "sheet metal, plastic, and rivets" theory, but the concept is basically the same. You need to show something that makes it CLEAR this is a sci-fi story and not, say, urban fantasy. In I, Robot, we see contraptions in Spooner's home that suggest a future setting, and then, once he steps outside, there is definitely no more question about it, as we are bombarded with robots and advertising about robots.
And notice also, that those things are not only there to create setting and mood. The story is about robots. This is all part of the setup to the coming conflict, presented in such a way that keeps the audience interested and wanting more.
Are you starting to get an inkling now of why I love this movie so much? Haha. And I haven't even gotten into the story yet, which does not disappoint.
But, since I've written a novel-length post already, I'll end it here, and simply say: YOU MUST SEE THIS MOVIE. And if you've seen it already, WATCH IT AGAIN. Take out your spiral notebook and trusty pen and study the structure, the elements, the dialogue ... everything. This is a great movie to help you learn about effective storytelling.
For all the above reasons and much (much!) more, I, Robot is, hands down, a New Classic.