Quite frankly, Will Smith owed us – big time. Whether it’s fair or not, we come to expect certain things from our superstars. When Smith appears in a big summer movie, we expect fun and excitement and good humor. Last summer, lots of audience members (myself included) were shocked by the mean-spirited, hateful, and atrociously violent Bad Boys II, which was the antithesis of a Will Smith Movie. This summer, Smith returns in I, Robot, which is a mostly solid return to form.
Set in 2035, Smith plays Detective Del Spooner of the Chicago Homicide Department. He’s brought in to investigate what appears to be the suicide of Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), a scientist who pioneered the development of service robots. The robots operate on the Three Laws of Robotics, which will be familiar to anyone who knows the Isaac Asimov story on which the film is based:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
Essentially, these rules forbid them to ever harm a human. However, when Spooner searches Lanning’s office for clues, he is attacked by one of the supposedly docile robots. He begins to wonder if Lanning was actually murdered. Spooner has already gained infamy within his department for disliking robots, so he doesn’t get a lot of support in his investigation.
Eventually he links up with Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), a robot psychologist. Together they discover that Lanning was concerned about “ghosts in the machine” – a robot’s ability to extract larger knowledge from its logic-based programming and act on a more autonomous basis. Their key to proving a link between this phenomenon and the doctor’s death lies with Sonny, the robot found in Lanning’s office. Bruce Greenwood plays Lawrence Robertson, the chairman of United States Robotics (USR), who is vehemently opposed to Spooner’s investigation. He may know more than he lets on about his star colleague’s demise.
I, Robot was directed by Alex Proyas, who also made Dark City - one of the best sci-fi movies ever, in my opinion. (He also directed The Crow.) Proyas is a master of visual style. For this new film, he sticks with the now-conventional CGI-heavy look that most summer blockbusters have, as opposed to the uniquely expressionistic model-based look of Dark City. More than a few elements are reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, particularly the futuristic vehicles and highways. There’s still a fair amount of visual imagination, though, which is fun to look at. I particularly like the robots themselves, which have almost human faces atop all the wires and mechanisms. I was impressed by the way the robots straddle a fine line between looking like people and looking like machines, never fully going one way or the other.
Then, of course, you have the whole Will Smith-ness of the movie, which is a good thing. The actor brings his trademark charisma to the part, adding some nice touches of humor and attitude. Spooner is a believable cop, yet he’s also a good Will Smith character. There is something about Smith that really works in the science fiction genre. He obviously knows it, having also made Independence Day and two Men in Black pictures. This is the Will Smith we want to see: funny, daring, cool.
Some of the action scenes are pretty mind-blowing. There’s one in which a whole herd of robots attacks Spooner’s car as it flies through a tunnel at high speed. In another, Spooner finds himself trying to escape a house that is being torn down by a gigantic demolition robot. The finale – set on a system of catwalks high above the ground – is perhaps my favorite. Proyas swirls the camera around those catwalks as the characters duke it out on top of them. It’s exciting stuff.
My one reservation about I, Robot is a pretty substantial one (although not substantial enough to keep me from giving the movie a recommendation). Asimov’s story is one of the most famous in science fiction. As such, its themes of robots evolving and learning have inspired countless other books and movies. For that reason, this version of I, Robot never seems as thematically riveting as it should. The film makes its point about the dangers of technology gaining a life of its own to the detriment of humanity; however, we’ve been given that warning dozens of times before. It is, by now, old hat. I didn’t necessarily object to hearing the message again; I just felt that nothing new had been added to it.
Whatever it lacks in originality, I, Robot makes up for in entertainment. This is an enjoyable piece of summer action with cool special effects and great humor. It is a genuine Will Smith Movie. What more do you need?
( out of four)
I, Robot is rated PG-13 for intense stylized action, and some brief partial nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.
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