Apparently adapted from an Isaac Asimov story, Alex ProyasI, Robot is either an insipid or cliched. It relies on the old sci-fi adage that technological progress doesn’t live up to the second half of that phrase, and that humans’ reliance on technology and reproducing it in mass amounts will lead to their downfall. Especially if this new innovation means that the machines we have invented are capable to decide whether humans are useful or destructive, as decided by, in the case of this movie, a robotic program named VIKI.
There is a new model of robots replacing the clunky, gray ones in the streets of Chicago of 2035. They’re painted white, a mix of shell and wire skeletons (the whole colour palette of the movie is white to black to brown and the occasional green, making the spaces look liked in and it’s at least being devoid of the neon bluish tint that is in most sci-fis). Their joint movements are smother than the old ones but unlike the latter they can actually move their faces. And when they attack either our protagonist Detective Spooner (Will Smith) or the Chicago’s citizens (including Shia Laboeuf) they seem to be crawling instead of being rigid militaristic beings.
Sonny (Alan Tudyk), a name either given by his master (James Cromwell, now known as Jean Dujardin’s elderly butler in The Artist) or by himself, is a robot accused of murdering the latter, his investigation confirming Spooner’s prejudice against robots. He is aware enough of how advanced he is to want to know what he is capable of. This is some strange casting since Tudyk has a pretty distinct face and voice although it’s a successful collaboration of acting, design and directing that these features of his are tuned down. He asks Spooner what a wink signifies, which to Spooner is rude question but this education becomes useful later on. He ends up being a witty bastard too, catching Spooner when the latter’s prejudiced fences go lower.
Either way, the transitions between wide shots and close-ups of Spooner in these scenes aren’t seamless and make the movie look cheap. These battle scenes also aren’t challenging enough for the humans, the creepy way they move makes them seem less solid also means that the leading characters can easily defeat them. Tthe denouement of every other sci-fi ends in some vertigo-inducing circular-shaped chamber, where pathways to the centre are made of narrow steel beams and the robots come in through the glass windows in intimidating numbers but they don’t look tangible enough for a real fight.
is a grating actor to watch, taking any sci-fi project to compensate for turning down the role of Neo in The Matrix trilogy. Although at least he competently handles a character’s prejudice sparked by a traumatic event involving a robot rescuing him instead of doing the same thing to a little girl – the best part of the movie is his soliloquy which, intentionally or otherwise, questions details of this back story. Of course Spooner is representative of the humanity lost within a logical-driven mindset of a fictional futuristic society. His Spooner gets another cliche by quasi-platonic, opposites-attract love interest (Bidget Moynahan) who is cold and culturally ignorant as he is temperamental and streetwise. His badge being taken away from him for pursuing the Sonny case without authority – how is he going to take it back!? Despite of what happens and of Sonny, he still carries a minor strain of that point of view.
The critical praise for Michel Hazanavicius‘ The Artist baffles me, especially since they say that it captures the silent era that the movie tries to reenact. Thinking about camera movement in those silents, the shot by shot relationships, image quality, the acting, and storytelling. When I look at those categories, The Artist seems to fail in almost all of them.
The characters let us read their lips instead of the inter-titles writing what they’re saying. Understandably, inter-titles are pesky and a silent seems smarter the less inter-titles it has But if Hazanavicius wanted to use those sparingly, at least he could have written a script with more action and direction instead of close human interaction. Besides, silent acting is gestural, intense and expressive – it’s definitely not like watching a movie with the volume turned down. These actors’ styles were too contemporary and introverted for the medium, anyway. At least Singin’ in the Rain had some respect to authentically imitate the silent acting style.
Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), the anti-hero George Valentin’s (Jean Dujardin) extramarital love interest, becomes her rival because her rising star would signal his failing career. Although she would never have been a star the way the movie makes her, her bubbly yet chic personality an alien creäture from the Arcadian yet All-American sweetheart or temptress types prevalent in 1927. Her dark skin, would also make her face prejudices that actresses experience today.
A part of the movie’s conceit is where George ‘refuses to talk.’ From his first scene he’s proven to be insufferable, his cockiness making me root for his failure. His decisions during this period in film history seems stupidly inaccurate because first, there’s the Kathy Selden argument against silent film. Also, when talkies came, most actors hurriedly tried their voices out. An actor’s voice had to sound terrible for him or her to be unemployed while some of them are financially stable enough to quit. It’s still strange to watch George dismiss talkies as a trend, stick to silent movies as an art form, crown himself as the titular ‘artist,’ and financially bury himself in the process (And yes, I know Charlie Chalpin existed). As much as I liked seeing him fail, it’s as if the movie uses a character’s pride to create a forced arc towards downfall.
Its visual language, though beautiful, is anachronistic. Others have compared it to Citizen Kane but watch out for shots resembling those in An Affair to Remember or its use of the music in Vertigo – apparently Ludovic Bource didn’t bother to write a coherent score for the movie – these references grating because they’re not supposed to be there. At the same time I had to consider that not every silent operated the same way. Murnau let his camera creep, Lang occasionally used quick pans while Griffith and most directors preferred short takes and multiple camera set-ups. The Artist, however, is self-indulgent with too much camera movement as well as letting its audience know how long its average shot length is. Sometimes it zooms to a poster that would direct the characters what to do, which is, again, what the inter-titles are for.
But I liked some things. Sound, foley or lack thereof is intelligently used here, especially in the dressing room scene when Peppy closes the door quietly behind her, as if letting us decide to feel whether she’s angry, sad or any emotion we can interpret for her. Despite Bejo being miscast, I kept checking on Peppy if she’s still the same character introduced in the movie, the fan girl waiting for that sliver of George’s presence, that humble struggling actress. I’m not sure if the fame has gotten into her, no matter how soberly she approaches it. But she’s never jaded nor purely cruel. I even like the damn dog, Jack’s (Uggie) rescue mission seeming like a non-sequitur I would see in an actual silent movie.
I understand that we can’t turn back the clock, making the images here look grainy and such. Nonetheless, it is necessary for a contemporary silent film to look and feel like the ones in the past. Silents aren’t like a genre with arbitrary conventions against which present or future filmmakers can rebel, it’s an actual medium with a relatively strict language. If someone is going to make a silent movie they have to follow some rules.
Even without looking at it from a technical standpoint, it still doesn’t have the same danger, ambition, pathos, comedy and magic that silents do. It relies on cuteness that for me doesn’t sustain itself. It’s disappointing that I can’t share the hype behind the movie, that this facsimile is a really cheap one, making me long for the real thing instead. But then you’re probably normal and don’t see the same problems in this movie like I do.
- Is The Artist the best film of the year? (telegraph.co.uk)
Jake Howell recently tweeted this trailer for The Artist which came out months ago. The film also features John Goodman and James Cromwell and directed by Michel Hazanavicius. The narrative is similar to A Star is Born – movie star (Jean DuJardin) discovers home girl, girl’s film career coincides and overshadows movie star’s burnout. The silent film is also reminiscent of Tati but with more grownup charm and emotional heft which is writer speak for it’s so beautiful that I almost cry when I think of the trailer. Enjoy.
- First Trailer for THE WOMAN IN BLACK (collider.com)