Sunday, June 2, 2013

Science Fiction and the Ladies

Today we're going to look at one of my favorite movies ever, Will Smith's neglected classic, 2004's I,Robot. Because in the Sci Fi world recently there's been a lot of, um. Fail? Regarding the ladies. So we're going to take a look at a movie where a lady is the co-star. Not the love interest. The co-star.

And yes, before y'all start in on me, let me assure you that I am well aware the movie has middling-to-nothing to do with Assimov's story.

One reason I, Robot didn't do very well is probably that, although it deals with huge themes about the nature of humanity, at its core it's quite a small movie. The main cast is comprised of three people with three secondary-ish characters, and only Will Smith has any arc to speak of. Big movies with casts of thousands (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean) tend to do better for a variety of reasons that we won't get into here.

But I think there's another reason it didn't do well, which can pretty much be summed up in one picture.

Look at that neckline. What were they thinking?!
Dr. Calvin is a robotics scientist working in the lab that Will Smith (Detective Spooner... whatevs, you know you're just thinking of him as Will Smith) investigates after the death of a famous robot inventor. She's fully invested in robots as the transformative Apple products of the new era, and needs the push from Will to start seeing them as something potentially sinister. Will has an illogical hatred of robots that blinkers him, and he doesn't understand them or the company they come from. The two of them cannot solve the case of the inventor's death without both of their perspectives and knowledge working together. She's invested because Inventor was her teacher. He's invested because Inventor fixed him after a horrific accident.

In other words, this is a buddy cop movie. This is Sherlock Holmes. This is Men in Black. This is Point Break.

A great idea, right? Two great tastes that taste great together. A sci-fi buddy cop movie. But they made one fatal error.

The buddy cop is a lady.

Look at them, walking together like they're
equals or something.
At no point in the movie is there even a hint of romantic tension between the two leads. Dr. Calvin doesn't want or expect to be saved, and Will Smith doesn't want to save her. On more than one occasion he leaves her to fend for herself while he runs ahead or stays behind. Sometimes he listens to her, sometimes they bicker, and both of them visibly become better people as a result of their interactions over the movie - Will drops the incessant bitching about his ex wife and general bitterness, and Dr. Calvin becomes more adaptive.

Moreover, the movie itself treats her - and us lady viewers - as an equal. Is there a shower scene with Dr. Calvin? Yeah. But there's also a shower scene with Will Smith, and my God if every single review doesn't mention that fact. Oh no! We were exposed to the female gaze for 35 seconds! The shock! The horror! Let me fetch my smelling salts!

Umm... I 'll fetch them in a minute.
We're so incredibly used to women having a "place" in movies as the "reward love interest" that I think people didn't know what to do with this movie when it came out.

Well. No. That's not true. They did know what to do with it - ignore it, mostly. Critics almost universally said "meh", or "stupid". And nobody mentioned Dr. Calvin at all, unless it was to say that her part was unbelievable. Because you know, attractive and competent female scientists? I can take your hyper-advanced robotics, but truly sir, this time you have gone too far!

During the same year critics fawned over Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a movie that explores what our memories mean to us. Now, I'm not saying that I, Robot is as smart or well-directed as ESotSM. But on the other hand, this was a well-made action movie with heart that explored an extremely timely issue, aka what it means to give increasingly large parts of our lives over to machines. This is a movie that asks verbatim:
"I suppose you would have banned the internet to keep the libraries open?"
This movie's marketing, and its critics, flat-out refused to accept Dr. Calvin's relevancy in her own movie. Instead it billed itself inaccurately as a Blade-esque one man mission to blow up a bunch of robots. Which a) sounds stupid, and b) is not this movie.

One man does epic shit. That lady in
the trailers? Uh, she's nobody. Shut up.
I can't help but wonder what the marketing for this movie - and its reception - would have looked like if it was about two men fighting against a futuristic doom.

I'm not sayin, I'm just sayin.


  1. I love this movie! I didn't know there were people out there who didn't like this movie. I spit on them.

  2. I haven't seen this movie, but it just got bumped up to the top of my "to watch" list. A female character who's not there to cast a romantic light on things? OMGNOWAI!!!! *eyeroll* Great post!