Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Film not Video!!

This is a new addition to Big Ell's Blog, Film not Video!! This new section will include film reviews. I am going to review movies that are just released (in Taiwan), recently released on DVD and classic films. For the time being there will be no ratings system as I can't think of a clever enough one. I was hoping to add guest reviews but me reviewer/critic went and got his own Blog, bastard! The first review is of I, Robot which is now out on DVD. I saw this movie but the following review provided by the Gentle Rant and is much better than anything I could write.

I, Robot: A Comm-Movie Review by Sean Reilly…

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the
sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless

-Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coleridge wrote some wonderful poetry. He also wrote about our ability to enjoy fantasy despite the fact that it was a pack of lies. He wrote that we had the ability to “suspend our disbelief” in order to enjoy something we knew to be false. Many of us go to the movies to escape, to enjoy this suspension of disbelief. There is a sense of leaving the real world behind and spending a few hours in an air conditioned room enjoying a well scripted pack of lies. I, Robot is a very entertaining movie but I found it difficult to suspend my disbelief with all of the product placements and unabashed advertising. I kept thinking, “Oh here’s the commercials, time to go to the bathroom,” only to discover that the movie was still playing. The commercials were woven into the movie, the commercial, the comm-movie.

I, Robot is loosely based on the short stories by Isaac Asimov and brought to you by the good people at Converse, Audi, Fed-Ex, Prudential Life, US Robotics and JVC. The movie opens with a ten minute long commercial for 2004 (this year’s) black leather Converse All-star High tops. Will Smith wakes up, stretches, works out, eats his breakfast and then opens a brand new box of the aforementioned 1950s sneakers made popular by then basketball legend Chuck Taylor. He raves over them, puts them on raves again, and then viewer is treated to a number of close ups on the famous logo located over the ankle bone.

Smith opens the door to leave and bumps into the Fed-ex “man” who is delivering a package and a very early hour indeed. There is a gag here and if this were a fifties sit-com the laugh track would’ve been in full swing during the encounter with the Fed-Ex robot deliveryman. This is actually a Fed-Ex commercial, hidden inside a Converse commercial, hidden inside a Hollywood commercial (movie.) The frames within the frames within the frames are dizzying. The layers, the design are exquisite. And the viewer is more than familiar with the design of this system. She sees it every night while watching TV.

A high speed foot chase ensues that has Smith (in his shiny new All-Stars) racing through the futuristic streets after a would-be robot purse snatcher. The scene is eerily similar to the opening scene of Smith’s Men in Black that had his character, J, running through the streets after an extra terrestrial with super developed getting away powers. Nonetheless Smith’s character manages to best the alien, and thereby engages the attention of a super secret government organization, MIB. The shoe executives must have been watching this on video (being too busy to go to the movies) and thinking, “Wow! What if he had been wearing my corporation’s shoes? Fuck the Olympics. Here we know that our shoe would win the race, it’s in the script.” Is the Bush administration perhaps in the shoe business? Or do they just have the same PR firm?

After this the viewer watches a helicopter pan over the city. A huge metropolis of skyscrapers and only two of them have names on them US Robotics and Prudential Life. Prudential has the distinction of being the only advertisement in the movie that is not woven into the storyline. It is a good old fashioned product placement, where the merchandise is placed where the editor knows the viewers will be looking; the modern day magician perfecting the opposite of the sleight of hand tricks, but still getting the mug to look exactly where you want him to.

U.S. Robotics is a strange fruit. On their website they have this to say about the film,

“…the movie is based upon the nine stories in Isaac Asimov's "I, ROBOT" anthology, which also served as the inspiration for our company name. Much like the movie's leading-edge special effects, U.S. Robotics has been at the forefront of modem technology by connecting users to the Internet for nearly three decades. To learn more about the U.S. Robotics click here. Or you can check out the links below...”

So here we have a company that has borrowed the name of their company and then helped to produce a movie that would get people talking about robots, thinking about robots. Admittedly it may have them thinking about robots trying to enslave humanity, and kill anyone that got in the way. (Sound familiar, by the way?) The Isaac Asimov homepage has this to say about US Robotics,

“The movie centers on robots built by United States Robotics, the corporation whose full name is U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc. in Asimov's stories. In the movie, the corporation is run by Lawrence Robertson. In the short story collection, Lawrence Robertson receives only a brief mention in the introduction as being the first president of the corporation; several generations of his offspring run the company as the story timeline progresses.”

We learn that the name used in the movies is not Asimov’s creation but instead a corporate creation based on his ideas. The name that Asimov contrived may have lacked a genuine modern feel in a genuine modern age, or maybe, just maybe this name was better for business.

Then we get to one of the two main commercials of the movie. The first was the Converse All-Stars short (which has been favored for this year Sundance for best non-animated short film.) The second is for Audi. The Audi commercial is with us for most of the rest of the movie. Smith’s character is relying on a bit of the entertainment industry’s conventional wisdom; young cop like characters are expected to drive flash cars that they could never really afford to rent, let alone, own: Magnum PI, James Bond and Miami Vice’s Crockett and Tubbs to name a few.

Smith is outfitted with an Audi, not unlike Timothy Dalton’s Bond in The Living Daylights (1987). The viewers get to see the famous four silver rings of the Audi logo every time the front of the car or the empty passenger seat are shown. This purports to be a Future Edition Audi and Smith’s character, true to North American form, loves his car. Even though the whole world drives on autopilot (for safety reasons) Smith’s character drives on manual and uses this skill and his new Audi to defeat two futuristic tractor trailers full of NS – 5 series robots. With only his high caliber gun, his robotic arm, his hot new car and his driving skills he defeats a small army of catlike, machine strong androids bent on his destruction. They are all (but one, one armed survivor) destroyed, along with the majority of the Audi. We notice that the passenger collision proof skeleton has kept the driver safe, and after a protracted battle and hundreds of huge blows to the car, the airbags choose the most opportune moment to engage (thus dispelling the myth of airbags engaging when lightly tapping the curb and decapitating a nun or small child in the passenger seat. Smith’s character stumbles away from the wreckage in pretty good shape; a testament to the safety engineers at Audi that were once known for designing things that would blow up and trap the occupants in a fiery death. Later in the movie this is taken one step further when another Audi breaks Smith’s stuntman’s fall as he is forced to jump out of a building.

The movie rounds out with a short JVC commercial. Like the previous Fed-Ex commercial it is a small humorous affair. The ultra bright female doctor is checking out Smith’s JVC disc player and accidentally turns it on and it is so loud and she can’t turn it off. This brilliant piece of advertising plays with a number of stereotypes. It is particularly appealing to the home stereo owner that likes to hear it loud and knows that girls can’t properly operate a guy’s stereo system.

The commercials taper off near the end except for the omnipresent U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc., I mean US Robotics. I figure that the viewer will have fewer problems with commercials closer to the beginning. They came right after the barrage of commercials that have corrupted or replaced the previews at the beginning that replaced the dancing candy and soft drinks in earlier times. The Converse commercial with its Fed-Ex interlude is ostensibly hidden, camouflaged in with the commercials that the viewer is by now conditioned to expect before the feature presentation. If the commercials were closer to the end then they are more likely to be forgotten by the conscious mind. It is replaced by the memories of the final battle with its inherent explosions and Hollywood tension.

The two main ads are for products that greatly aid the hero in his mission; the shoes that make the chase. (This is a familiar message to young NBA fans and their parents.) Not to mention the car that goes the distance against Armageddon and squeaks through with its safety features more or less intact. Both of these products are included in the movie’s dialog, “Not my car!” and earlier Smith says something like, “My 2004 Replica Converse All-Stars” the first time with delight and the second with real concern. A delight and concern that expensive basketball shoe or sports car owners can really understand; that they can really relate to. The products aren’t just being shown they are changing the dialog and asking the star to bring further emotions to his performance than Asimov ever asked for. So this is a heartfelt thank you to Converse, Audi, Fed-Ex, Prudential Life and to JVC for an excellent series of commercials; without them the movie really would fall short. And I’m sure Asimov thanks you too, for bringing his characters from the atomic age to the new age; the commercial age. Mr. Coleridge is out of luck, though. His material, though elegant, could never sell 200$ basketball shoes.

Sean Reilly,
Tai Chung,
2004 08 02

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