Robot could have been a fantastic movie. Using nuts, bolts, wires, jazzy computer consoles, titanium and silicon is the neatest way yet to legitimize Extreme Rajini and everything that he has stood for.
Because Chitti (Rajinikanth), the robot, is a master of a zillion skills, knows everything there is to know, fights like the meanest war machine the US has ever built, and is more brilliant than anything you've ever imagined. He can be Goddess Durga when he has to finish off cheap goons who use Her name, or Lord Krishna when he has to rescue the heroine from gang rape. He can push the limits of medical science by carrying out complicated obstetrics, and he can recharge his batteries at will. Heck, he can dismantle himself even.
This invincible automaton was built by a super-intelligent scientist, Dr. Vaseegaran (Rajinikanth). Indeed, the question of who is more awesome - the Creator or the Creation - becomes increasingly too mind-numbing to even think of.
But alas, this alchemy of Rajini-ness, this metallic immortalization of his quirks, isn't allowed to finish in peace. Shankar, who begins by feeding off the superstar's charisma and doling out a playfully cute first act, chucks the scriptwriters out after the interval and makes the film an exaggeration of every bit of ridiculousness that Rajini cynics so love to ridicule.
Robot's story isn't much of a puzzle. Vaseegaran has built a robot with the sole aim of donating the technology to the Indian army so it can use robots on its battlefields and prevent thousands of soldiers from dying. Thus is born Chitti, who, as described above, is peerlessness personified (Rajini, by the way, doesn't really do much; all his stunts and capers are computer graphics).
However, when Vaseegaran coaches him to start having feelings, all hell starts breaking loose. Chitti has started becoming a man, and no man can resist a woman who looks like Aishwarya Rai and keeps kissing him on his cheek and telling him how amazing he is - even if the woman is the boss' girl.
The first half of the movie consists of fun cyborg vignettes of the kind that you saw in Small Wonder, and a lot of the phony-yet-glitzy romance that commercial cinema usually has.
Robot slowly spirals into meaningless tripe, when Chitti turns bad goaded by the evil scientist Bohra (Danny Denzongpa). Shankar's obsession with visual creativity overtakes logic and reason to the point that towards the end, the extravaganza on screen totally stops making sense.
Think thousands of insane Chittis wrecking havoc all over, with even the armed forces not being able to contain the mess, and then transpose childish fantasy-graphics onto the idea - and you're bang on this flick's wavelength. There's no good vs evil battle here, by the way - just the entire State's machinery trying to stop a maniacal hydra-headed monster.
Still, Robot has its share of philosophy. In a particularly impressive moment, Chitti asks his master how he can "create" Chitti and teach him to feel and yet expect him to not love the woman he wants to. Then, there are the existential doubts - "So this is what being human means? To be capable of self-destruction?"
The movie is visually rich, thanks to its budget, as well as its star power. Rajini is understated and Aishwarya Rai is but an accessory, but make a formidable combination they do.
Rajini turns into an insane caricature in his evil avatar, but the rest of the flick sees him pull off rather sedate stuff, with even his swagger being simulated by the machines. Rai has stunning screen presence despite her silly role and exaggerated heroine-histrionics.
Rahman's music is an important accompaniment to the film, given Shankar's fixation with high-end songs. The tracks are all pretty good, but the much-hyped Machu Pichu song comes in at a point where the movie is grating your nerves.
In the end, the kind of hype and money that floated around this flick could probably not have been matched by its IQ anyway, and maybe that was the problem.