I, Robot, the latest July “let’s make a butt-load of money with Will Smith” vehicle, is a good-looking movie. It has an interesting vision of Chicago 30 years from now—the Sears Tower sharing the skyline with new spiraling skyscrapers and people sharing the streets with robots. The film works for its first hour on the powers of Smith’s decent performance and an intriguing mystery. When it becomes corrupted by sappy-happy robots and gives a bland character too much screen time, it nosedives into mediocrity.
Smith plays Snooper, a detective with some secrets, a deeply ingrained hatred of all things robotic, and a pretty hilarious name for a detective. When a scientist buddy of his (James Cromwell) falls from a window during an apparent suicide, Snooper immediately suspects that the center of the scientist’s universe—the robots he invented—could be the culprit.
The primary suspect in the murder is a robot named Sonny (voice of Alan Tudyk, Steve the Pirate from Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story). Sonny is rather suspicious because he pulls guns on people and throws temper tantrums, flagrant violations of the three robot rules that are supposed to protect humans. The Sonny robot makes for an intriguing murder suspect at first but becomes an annoyance when he starts exhibiting more human emotions and heroics. His meditations on dreaming are also a direct rip-off of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Haley Joel Osment in AI: Artificial Intelligence.
Were Snooper allowed to go it alone on his investigation, I, Robot would’ve sidestepped one of its biggest flaws. Alas, he must have a sidekick, and actress Bridget Moynahan is given the thankless role of Susan Calvin, U.S. Robotics employee and drooling lover of all things robotic. She’s duller than a 150,000-mile-old brake pad, and her constant whining for robot rights as Snooper tries to get his job done is painful to endure.
The film is based on the stories of Isaac Asimov and directed by Alex Proyas, maker of the very good Dark City and the not-so-good Garage Days. Asimov fans might complain about the film’s willingness to stray from complex sci-fi concepts, often relying on action sequences. In truth, the artificial-intelligence concepts the film explores have been examined in far better fashion in the past. Because it is somewhat dated material and many similar films have beaten it to the screen, I, Robot is no longer that profound, its mysteries are not mind-blowing, and its best attributes wind up being some good action sequences.
When Smith’s Snooper is attacked by robots while driving his car through a tunnel, it’s both thrilling and scary. I also like a sequence where Smith holds a gun to robot heads trying to get one of them to twitch and run. On the flipside, the film’s final effects sequence, involving the attempted destruction of a big computer, goes overboard.
The robots themselves are decent enough CGI creations yet perhaps a little bland. It’s also a bit ridiculous to ask an audience to empathize and sympathize with robotic plights. This may have worked for Spielberg because he had Haley Joel Osment playing an android. Here, the icy robots are just machinery with a few emotions. It’s like trying to ask an audience to feel pity for a bunch of oppressed DVD players.
I, Robot is not a total loss. Smith acquits himself nicely, and some of the robot carnage is first-rate. Look at it this way: If you love robots, and I mean really love robots, or think you have the potential within for loving robots in the future, this could be your movie. (CPL, CR, CS, NM, ER)