I, Robot

For a film that takes place 31 years in the future, “I, Robot” feels dated. Make that carbon dated. Filled with archaic ideas about robots on the rampage, “I, Robot,” based loosely (very loosely) on the Issac Asimov collection of science-fiction stories, is a big budget blender that can’t seem to separate the pulp from the fiction.

This high-tech film noir stars summer’s venerable popcorn pusher Will Smith as a Chicago homicide detective in 2035 with a microchip on his shoulder; he’s a techno-phobe. He doesn’t like robots, doesn’t trust them, and sees only bad in society’s utter dependence on them. They may come with preprogrammed rules and regulations, but Del Spooner (Smith) knows rules are made to be broken.

Director Alex Proyas and writers Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsmith seldom break the rules, delivering a film that looks sensational but lacks cinematic surprise. Despite it’s shiny wrapping and pretty bow, “I, Robot,” isn’t much of a gift. It looks like so many other films it never establishes an identity of its own. The futuristic landscapes recall Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report,” the robots “Artificial Intelligence.”

Smith’s Spooner is a hard-boiled dick, a man who doesn’t like to say “I told you so,” but will anyway. Spooner gets his chance just as U.S. Robotics, the leading supplier of personal robots, unleashes their latest creation: the NS-5. When robot creator Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell) is found dead, all human fingers point to Sonny, a personable NS-5 who shows uncommon human characteristics.

As programmed law forbids robots from harming humans, U.S. Robotics head honcho Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood) scoffs at the notion and prepares for the massive roll-out.

Feeling like a futuristic Chicken Little, Spooner knows something really bad is going to happen, but can’t get anyone to believe him. Not his boss, the stereotypical black police Lieutenant (Chi McBride, always fun) who has a hard time separating Spooner’s prejudices from his legitimate concerns.

Nor the pretty robot shrink (Bridget Moynihan), who falsely believes she’s got a grip on the situation. Then all hell breaks loose, allowing Proyas to stage some impressive flights of celluloid fancy. Once the robot invasion begins, the visual effects team takes over, and the blend of live action and pixels work rather well within context of the story. The robots, an eerie assembly of steel, plastic, wires and attitude, inhabit rather than overwhelm the frame. There are moments we actually believe that the actors and these creations share the same space.

You just wish they had something to say. Smith smartly plays his role close to the leather vest. The writers attempt to layer Smith’s character, but it doesn’t work. The revelations are obvious and unnecessary. When we learn a vital piece of Spooner’s background, are we really surprised? Or just surprised it took so long?

Smith flippantly wades through the tired dialogue, emerging as a reluctant hero we can rally behind. The rest of the cast isn’t as lucky. Co-writer Akiva Goldsman needs to distance himself from science-fiction. After “Lost in Space,” “Batman and Robin,” and now “I, Robot,” Goldsman (“A Dangerous Mind,” “The Cinderella Man”) reaffirms his inability to write life-size characters in a larger-than-life setting.

He’s at his best writing small, personal moments, something “I, Robot” avoids like the plague. The film is the equivalent of a wind-up car. Once you set it down and let it go, it takes off in all directions. Proyas, a director noted for his stylized visions (“Dark City”), understands the B- nature of the material and shoots accordingly. His realization is a dark, moody landscape where the robots are more interesting than the humans.


Robots go on strike in futuristic cautionary tale


Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, Bruce Greenwood, Chi McBride, Alan Tudyk, James Cromwell, Peter Shinkoda. Directed by Alex Proyas. Rated PG-13. 115 Minutes.


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