Isaac Asimov's I, Robot was a cautionary tale and a rumination, a warning about intellect without soul and an exploration of what it means to be human. The movie I, Robot, based on Asimov's ideas but not directly on his work, is an action thriller that touches on those themes, but is mostly an excuse for Will Smith to show off his pecs and for CGI guys to strut their stuff.
That's not necessarily a bad thing; the movie moves along with great speed and verve, and it's got just enough of a sci-fi sheen to make things interesting, if not provocative. Philosophers and true believers may be disappointed, but for movie fans, I, Robot mostly delivers the goods.
The year is 2035, and a lot has happened in 31 years. Cities are far more orderly and seem remarkably less crowded. Cars run along on autopilot and park themselves vertically. And robots are everywhere, doing for people what people don't feel like doing for themselves and inexorably working their way into the fabric of society.
Shouldn't this worry humans, the notion that robots seem to be taking over? Isn't there the chance they might go berserk? Nope and nope, thanks to the three laws of being a robot programmed into every robot brain. 1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; 2) A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law; 3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.
Del Spooner (Smith), however, remains skeptical. He's a police detective with a serious chip on his shoulder when it comes to robots: he hates them, doesn't trust them and wishes they'd all go away and leave humanity alone.
That puts him in conflict with just about everyone, especially his gruff but compassionate boss (Chi McBride), who feels compelled to toe the company line, and evil corporate bigwig Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood), head of the corporation that manufactures the robots, who is the company line.
Spooner, however, seizes the chance of his lifetime when scientist Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell) supposedly commits suicide, but much of the evidence suggests he actually was killed by a renegade robot who calls himself Sonny and seems dangerously close to having one essential trait that separates human from machine, feelings.
The more Spooner investigates, the more he's convinced the robots are dangerously fallible, and the more dangerous he becomes to Robertson and his allies.
Director Alex Proyas, the force behind 1998's masterfully atmospheric (and futuristic) Dark City, at times seems overwhelmed, especially by the action sequences - they're exciting, but they tend to go on too long. Smith, as commanding a movie presence as ever, occasionally lets his onscreen persona get in the way (his wisecracks tend to belong in another movie). Still, his charisma gives audiences a rooting interest, and his relationship with Bridget Moynahan's coldly logical robotics specialist, who gradually sees the wisdom in Spooner's skepticism, gives the film spark.
I, Robot doesn't delve nearly as deep into the human vs. robot dichotomy as it could, giving the issue merely a surface treatment (Steven Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence probed the issue more thoroughly). But the robots themselves (especially Sonny) are impressive creations, enough like humans to make their assimilation into the culture believable, different enough to make it creepy.
Starring Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan
Directed by Alex Proyas
Released by 20th Century Fox
Rated PG-13 (intense stylized action, brief partial nudity)
Time 115 minutes
Sun Score ***