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I, Robot   C+

20th Century Fox

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Alex Proyas
Writers: Jeff Vintar, Akiva Goldsman (based on the book by Isaac Asimov)
Cast: Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, Bruce Greenwood, James Cromwell, Chi McBride, Alan Tudyk.

Review by Rob Vaux

And now a little something from the "it could have been worse" department. I, Robot embarks upon a perilous quest to transform Isaac Asimov's science-fiction classic into a mid-July effects orgy starring Will Smith. The grating sound you hear is the purists' dental work being set on edge. This is not Asimov; it's more like a distant cousin of Asimov, a light dusting of his ideas mixed with an assembly-line shot of adrenaline. His world of puzzle-box science -- of ironclad laws and how the universe finds sneaky ways around them -- is too highbrow for this kind of moviemaking. Though the press kit glosses it over with notions of "being true to the spirit," little beyond the title and the most basic ideas remain. However, despite the howls of anguish from those expecting something more literal, I, Robot is hardly a failure. It's engaging, articulate, and even entertaining in its own way. It holds our attention for an adequate hour and 50 minutes, and its star makes sure we're never bored. As an adaptation, it's ludicrous. But as a summer movie, it's not half bad.

Then again, both Smith and director Alex Proyas have the capacity to blow us out of our socks. With The Crow and Dark City, Proyas produced a pair of landmark works, taking us to places we'd truly never seen before. We've seen I, Robot before. More than once. We've see the nice tall buildings, we've seen the nifty future cars, and while the robots themselves -- automated servants occupying a large niche in society -- have a certain distinction, the reasons why we should care about them are slippery and evasive. Proyas does a solid job of spicing things up -- he has a gift for staging and his camerawork is always fun -- but you get the sense that none of it will age particularly well. Without the uniqueness of his earlier pictures, the trappings here are unduly intrusive, muscling out the human story in favor of empty mechanics.

Smith, on the other hand, goes a long way towards making up the difference. He may be the most irresistibly watchable movie star of his generation, and while his hard-nosed cop Del Spooner flirts dangerously with cliché, his boundless charm and considerable physical presence are a joy. Spooner's technophobia comes into play following the murder of a prominent robotics designer (James Cromwell), whose killer appears to be his latest creation. "Sonny" (Alan Tudyk), part of a brand-new line of bots intended to dominate the market, may have slain his own builder, and in so doing violated the three unbreakable laws that protect humanity from their mechanical servants.

The implications of such an act were the fulcrum for Asimov's writing: the delicious curiosity as to how and why incidents like that were possible. So too, did it raise intriguing philosophical conceits about the nature of sentience, and at what point a human-appearing tool might become something more. The issue dates back to Greek mythology and I, Robot at least makes the pretense of grappling with it. Sadly, it tends to evade the meatier stuff, shunting aside "I think, therefore I am" musings in favor of the simpler pleasures of bang-bang, shoot-shoot. It never abandons the effort to reach more profound themes -- and there are some lovely shots that deliver a certain visual resonance -- but when compared to the likes of A.I. or 2001, it can't help but look like a pretender. Considering the source material, that's a noticeable disappointment.

And yet, despite its flaws, it still holds up reasonably well as an action picture. Spooner soon finds himself the target of seemingly random attacks, which could point the way to the real killer, and he fights back with the gusto of all his ilk. Proyas brings imaginative flair to the theatrics, and while the path from one set piece to the next is quite obvious, it's handled with commendable efficiency. The robots are plausible and interesting to watch, while Tudyk invests Sonny with a palpable sense of character. And for all the superficiality, I, Robot still produces a few moments that haunt and move us: hinting at the things Asimov was reaching for, and what we could have seen here had the film taken a more cerebral path. In light of that, it's not quite fair to condemn it for what it is. I, Robot never really stumbles, and its modest achievements are a credit to the minds behind it. Its only real failing is the knowledge that everyone involved can play at a higher level, and a few tantalizing moments attesting to that potential. Sadly, therein lies the rub. There's no swifter way to ruin "not bad" than a reminder of something truly great... and for I, Robot, that reminder is never further away than the title.

Review published 07.16.2004.

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