I, Robot

(2004) ** Pg-13
115 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: Alex Proyas. Cast: Will Smith, Alan Tudyk, Bridget Moynahan, Chi McBride, Bruce Greenwood.

Isaac Asimov's science fiction classic I, Robot threatened over a number of years to become a film via a 1978 screenplay by Asimov's friend—and respected sf author—Harlan Ellison. In 1987, on the occasion of the publication of Ellison's screenplay, Asimov wrote, "Since Star Wars had coined millions, Harlan was asked to make the robots 'cute,' like R2-D2, and they also wanted to make Susan Calvin young and pretty like Princess Leia." In 2004, the dream of Ellison and the late Asimov died as Hollywood got its wish with an I, Robot "suggested by" Asimov's book. Okay, the post-Terminator studio went the scary route with the robots as well as the cute one, but Calvin's a 33-year-old babe, Will Smith's the non sequitur leading man, and razzle-dazzle triumphs over story and intellect.

In his 1950 novel (essentially a collection of thematically linked short stories), Asimov posited a somewhat passive but keenly intelligent female hero in the robospychologist Susan Calvin, who strives to avoid attention while maintaining the stability of the robotic industry and, therefore, the universe. Asimov's well-meaning "Brain" super-computer was made in a male image. 20th Century Fox's film, redesigned unimaginatively by screenwriters Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman and director Alex Proyas (Dark City), casts the Brain as an ominous female and Will Smith as a standard-issue "conflicted" hero with a mouthful of wisecracks and an itchy trigger finger.

Smith plays Del "Spoon" Spooner, a cop in 2035 Chicago with a retrograde taste for the 2004 lifestyle and a big chip on his shoulder for robotkind (for the record, neither Spooner nor Chicago appear in Asimov's book). Robots are omnipresent in the sleek Minority Report-esque urban environment: as FedEx couriers, dogwalkers, trash collectors, and household servants. The movie opens on "the eve of the largest robotic distribution in history," promising one robot for every five humans, but for spectacle's sake, the special effects-crammed streets—where Spooner chases down a robot suspect in the first scene—already reflect that ratio. The reason for Spooner's distrust of robots is one of the screenplay's supposed "Big Secrets" teased until a second-act reveal. Meanwhile, he's pleased to find evidence of robotic foul play in the apparent suicide of Dr. Alfred Lanning, the senior scientist of the U.S. Robots corporation (Asimov's ill-tempered company man becomes a slyly subversive but kindly James Cromwell).

Initial investigatory scenes reminiscent of the superior Rising Sun break into a second chase of a robot suspect, this time a curiously humanistic robot who identifies himself as "Sonny" (voiced by Alan Tudyk). The sequence climaxes in a scene which superficially references Asimov's brainteasing "Little Lost Robot" chapter. Emblematic of Proyas' approach, Spooner shoots first and asks questions later. The 'bots are creepy: lithe and translucent, they have ruthless instincts, smart mouths, and a dubiously low tolerance for bullets. In Calvin, Spooner finds a reluctant ally, a cold-fish true believer in robots to Spoon's hot-blooded robot bigot; could romantic sparks be far behind? Gag us with a Spoon.

Proyas's I, Robot operates only with such binary simplicity, its dimwitted premises (worlds away from Asimov's ponderable "what if"s) the exo-skeleton bones for unconvincing action derivations from the last couple of decades of sci-fi popcorn: Terminator 2, Blade Runner, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, et al. Perhaps it goes without saying that I, Robot is less than the sum of these parts, especially given the clueless abandonment of its own best source. Asimov's book is, effectively, an anthology of science fiction detective stories cum object lessons in robotic logic, but science-minded Sherlockian puzzles morph into gun-blazing Mike Hammer noir in the tipped hands of Vintar and Goldsman, who make a running gag of Calvin dumbing everything down several shades for Smith's anti-intellectual hero.

What remains of Asimov's book? A handful of his futuristic concepts—like self-parking automobiles—crop up, and the film claims (erroneously) to be predicated on Asimov's classic "Three Laws of Robotics." The names Calvin and Lanning are used (as is that of USR CEO Lawrence Robertson, played menacingly by Bruce Greenwood), but the characters bear only superficial resemblance to their namesakes. Clearly, the filmmakers are asking for it by calling the movie I, Robot, but for the sake of argument, Proyas's I, Robot can be judged on its own dearth of merits. None of the actors can overcome the witless dialogue and nonsensical plot, leaving the ephemeral, untethered video-game pleasures of bullets, crashes, epic-sized armies, and flying bodies. To quote Moynahan's Calvin, "Why? It doesn't make sense!?" I'm sad to say, this I, Robot is fancy but tastelessly dumb.

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