There is a moment early on in I, Robot when it appears that screenwriters Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman are about to take us out of the normal, safe realm of summer blockbusters and into a more deeply meaningful sociopsychological statement on identity, racism, and humanity. Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood), head of United States Robotics, confronts our hero Detective Del Spooner (Will Smith) about his seemingly irrational suspicion of robots. Says Robertson to Spooner: “You just don’t like their kind.” The subtext is quite clear. A white man confronts a black man to say, not so subtlely, “See, you can be racist, too.” However, Spooner doesn’t miss a beat, and the line is forgotten almost immediately, because this is not a movie that wants to make a statement about racism or humanity. Nor is it a movie that wants to explore the ever-approaching moral quandary of artificial intelligence and consciousness.
No, I, Robot is a movie about Will Smith taking on an army of killer robots. Fans of Asimov should check their knowledge of the master’s novels at the door. The only aspect of Asimov’s vision to make it into the film intact are the Three Laws of Robotics:
The First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
The Second Law: A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
The Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Asimov’s short story collection, which the film claims to be “suggested” by, explores the laws in excruciating detail. The film explores ways for Smith to destroy hoardes of evil robots in ever more increasingly explosive ways.
The limp plot starts with the murder of Dr. Alfred Lanning (the criminally under-used James Cromwell), the man behind modern robotics. The only possible suspect is a next-generation robot named Sonny (voiced by the inimitable Alan Tudyk). Of course, for Sonny to have killed Lanning is impossible, as every character on screen except Spooner insists incessantly, as such an action would directly violate the First Law. This mystery leads Spooner and robopsychologist Dr. Susan Calvin (the wooden Bridget Moynahan) along a trail of increasingly improbable clues on toward an explosive but sadly predictable ending.
Smith is at his action-star best here, tossing off one-liners between punches like a pro and keeping the same good-natured cockiness that made him an A-lister in films like Independence Day and the first Men In Black. He’s on-screen for almost every one of the film’s 115 minutes, but he takes even the worst beating with such good humor that it’s the rare viewer who won’t enjoy being along for the ride.
Director Alex Proyas finally gets the chance to show us what he can do with a budget. The dark beauty of the The Crow and the futuristic art deco of Dark City give way to a slicker, more polished day-after-tomorrow Chicago in this film, but Proyas manages to work in the combination of harsh angles and smooth pans that made his earlier films such technical marvels. Though he was clearly directing against a green screen for many of the action sequences, the CGI is uninvasive and realistic. The effects work well when used, but nowhere do they overwhelm the actors. In particular, a large scene with Smith, Moynahan, and 1,001 robots must have been largely computer generated, but because Proyas keeps the shots narrow after an initially impressive establishing shot, the viewer barely has time to register that most of the set isn’t actually there.
I, Robot is everything a big-budget popcorn movie should be. While neither particularly intelligent or original, the film is an entertaining diversion for sci-fi and action fans alike. For those who prefer their sci-fi smart, Asimov’s books are a better bet.