Astro Boy (PG)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Sometime in the future, a few lucky folks live in a floating paradise above the hellishly post-apocalyptic surface of the Earth. Well, for some it's a paradise: The meatbag humans have been freed from the workaday-world drudgery by armies of robots who do everything from cook and clean to crash-test Jetsons-style flying automobiles. Mostly, though, the androids work at the feet of the humans, presenting happily subservient faces to them while grumbling to their own fully sentient peers about how they "hate" their jobs, or are "freaked out" by the disturbing things humans do, or how they wish for a different life.
It's creepy, and it's weird, and it's something like a mecha minstrel show, particularly in how the film pretends to a "robots are people, too" theme yet itself fails to treat the robots as such. It's as if someone in the 1850s made an anti-slavery movie that nevertheless featured blackface minstrelry because, you know, it's still hilarious, right?
Oh, and did I mention? Astro Boy is for kids!
I'm not familiar with the cult-favorite 1960s Japanese cartoon about a robot boy that inspired this American retread, but I'm guessing it wasn't this icky. And it probably wasn't this nonsensical, either, because much of the nonsense appears to stem from attempts by screenwriters David Bowers (who also directs) and Timothy Harris to shoehorn the story of Toby (later Astro) into the robots-as-people theme.
See, Dr. Tenma (the voice of Nicolas Cage) is the scientific genius of Metro City, when his boy, Toby (the voice of Freddie Highmore), is killed in an accident that, frankly, is entirely the fault of Tenma as both a negligent scientist and negligent father. Tenma is so grief-stricken that he builds a robot version of Toby. He uploads the kid's memories (no word on why he had downloaded them in the first place) into the android, who believes he is the human Toby, and tries to pretend that everything's just hunky-dory.
But if Tenma wants to pretend that this is his lost son, and if this culture has such disdain for robots, why the hell would Tenma trick out the metal Toby with bizarre robotic accoutrements such as jet-powered feet, superstrength and the ability to understand robot language? Was Tenma eagerly anticipating the moment at which he would reject the robot "son" precisely because he's so emphatically not human, just when Toby, now having adopted the robot name Astro, is coming to terms with his inherent machine-ness?
Nah, of course not! Astro needs jet-powered feet, laser cannons in his hands, and machine guns in his butt so he can fight other robots! (The bad robots powered by evil red energy instead of nice blue energy.)
It gets worse, actually. Astro is exiled to the garbage-strewn Earth's surface, where he meets more terrible people who "rescue" trashed robots for use in android gladiatorial combat games. Oh, and he meets members of the Robot Revolution Front, which the film intends as plucky comic relief — those wacky rebels, demanding they be treated like the sentient, self-aware beings they are and not like chattel. Adorable!
The only excuse that can be made for Astro Boy is that it obviously has no idea how unsettling it is. Nor how drearily dull it is. That lack of self-awareness may be a blessing for it, but not for us.