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The most surprising thing about I, Robot, in which Will Smith uncovers a robotic conspiracy of unprecedented magnitude, is that it isn’t half bad.
Which means, of course, it’s only half good.
Directed by Alex Proyas and “suggested by” the famed book of short stories by Isaac Asimov, I, Robot is spectacularly derivative, proudly wearing its references to other movies — including but not limited to Robocop, Minority Report, Terminator, Blade Runner and, improbably enough, Gangs of New York — like a medal of honor. It’s impossible to be held in awe by anything the film puts forth — we’re three steps ahead of the plot even before the opening credits roll.
Smith plays Chicago homicide detective Del Spooner, a man with a profound distrust of technology (and for good reason we soon learn, via a flashback). Spooner’s anti-tech stance makes him an odd-man-out in the year 2035, a year when walking, talking robots have taken over life’s everyday tasks, such as dog walking, house cleaning and bartending. (It’s never addressed in any kind of meaningful way how this robotic work force has impacted the human unemployment rate.)
Mega-corporation U.S. Robotics is about to unveil its latest model — the NS-5 — achieving a ratio of one robot to every five humans. No one seems even remotely concerned by the ramifications of this — except for Spooner, who’s obsessively investigating the possible murder of USR’s chief inventor, Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), by — gasp! — a ‘bot named Sonny (Dodgeball‘s Alan Tudyk). Sonny — who has a soft-spoken honeydew voice that’s just a touch less effete than C-3P0’s and a range of expressions that make his translucent plasticine face seem almost lifelike — insists he did not murder Lanning. He’s scheduled for decommission anyway. “But I am unique,” he protests. Yes, well, that and two bits will buy you a can of oil at Joe’s, Sonny, so get over it.
Dare I bring up the fact that there’s a twist involving Sonny? But the twist is so lame, it hardly registers as a revelation. It’s more like a “Well, duh.” Three laws are hard-wired into every robot. That they must never, ever harm a human. That they must also always obey a human order. And finally, that they must preserve their own kind, without breaking either of the first two laws. It’s this third law that creates a few logical issues in our fine mechanical friends, who eventually reveal their true nature to Spooner — a nature that includes a red glow in their chests to signify that they’ve gone over to the dark side. Either that, or they’ve got a serious case of android heartburn.
It’s up to Spooner and USR’s Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) to prevent a robot takeover of the world. No one believes them, however. It never occurs to Spooner to pull out a vintage copy of The Terminator and show just what happen to the world when machines beget machines.
I, Robot is meant to be a cautionary tale, but we’ve been cautioned so many times — starting with Michael Crichton’s 1973 Westworld, in which amusement park robots go on a murderous rampage — that it’s become a little like listening to white noise or a Britney Spears album. What, exactly, should we fear? The Roombas motoring around our homes scooping up dust and terrifying our cats? With no original plot to engage us, I, Robot becomes little more than a two-hour exercise in passivity. Yes, there are a couple high-speed action sequences, but they don’t even come close to the magnitude or heart-stopping brilliance of those found in Spider-Man 2.
In coming up sterile — both in terms of ideas and emotional resonance — I, Robot never quite enters the realm of decent science fiction. (Consider instead 1987’s Robocop, which expertly incorporated a heartbreaking gravity into its violent-yet-satirical framework.) In terms of expressing itself, I, Robot is just plain lazy. As well as lucky — lucky to have Smith to power its box office drive. But the affable superstar seems a little worn out by his wise-guy persona, delivering his lines with the conviction of a man who’s been selling newspapers on a street corner for 72-hours straight.
I, Robot fails to do much of anything other than take our money and repay us with some moments of CGI-induced spectacle and a handful of rehashed ideas. You can have all the malfunctioning servos and maniacal positronic brains in the world assailing you, but without a little heart and soul, you might as well be fending off the Tin Man before his journey to Oz.