I, Robot

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 12/14/04 11:35:03

"Well, at least it ain't Twiki."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

One of the first things we see in the futuristic action thriller “I, Robot” is Will Smith slipping on some Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars, which he calls “a thing of beauty,” and we think, hey, pretty cool guy. Minutes later, Smith is telling another character that his shoes are “vintage 2004,” and it hit me: on sale now!

Yes, they’ve taken one of the most respected and beloved of all science fiction writings and turned it into a product placement machine. For the world of tomorrow is complete with Audis, JVC stereos, and polite, prompt service from FedEx. Sigh. When the credits read “suggested by Isaac Asimov’s book,” I doubt such cheap shilling was one of the suggestions.

Maybe I wouldn’t mind so much had the story been worth it; after all, I overlook such blatant advertising tie-ins with the Bond series and such. But this movie, which borrows only the ideas of the “three laws of robotics” from Asimov and ditches everything else, whips up a disappointingly bland bit of dumbass for a plot. Here’s Hollywood’s chance to make bright, intelligent science fiction, and all we get instead is a mediocre paint-by-numbers actioner.

The film even seems afraid to be smart. Consider how Smith’s character is intentionally dumbed down. He’s a guy who can’t understand when a scientist uses big words like “psyche” and “automaton.” And so he has to force the scientist to say it again, in short, dumb words. This is not because Smith’s character is stupid, but because the filmmakers think the audience is stupid. In a blatant effort to not alienate the dumbest moviegoers, to aim for the lowest common denominator, we get a complete skip over everything that makes Asimov’s writings so wonderful. Asimov trusted the reader to “get it;” screenwriters Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman (yes, that Akiva Goldsman) do not offer the same to the viewer, and it’s an insult.

After all, consider what a movie we could have had if the writers shot for smarter convictions. The film’s most interesting storyline, regarding a robot who’s evolved into self-consciousness, is pushed aside for limp action, but oh, what potential it had. The robot, named Sonny, has both an innocent wonder and a frightening lack of emotional control; voiced by and visually modeled after Alan Tudyk, Sonny quickly becomes the most interesting, involving character in the film. Here’s a story with infinite possibilities, and even if it only sticks to the classic “can a robot be alive?” idea, there’s still so much to be seen here.

And it all goes down the drain. The main storyline involves the death of a prominent scientist (James Cromwell) who may have been murdered by a robot, a fact which would break Asimov’s unbreakable three rules of robotics, the first of which states that a robot cannot harm a human. On the case is Detective Spooner (Smith), who’s deeply prejudiced against robots and who’s the only one who’s certain that robots can, in fact, kill.

The whole thing sounded too familiar to me, and not just the sleazy corporate tycoon or the frustrated police chief or the conspiracy that only Spooner believes. Those were clichés that didn’t annoy too much. There was something else, something that keep jabbing at the back of my brain as Sonny started to look more and more innocent, even to the anti-robot bigot Spooner. Then it dawned on me: Will Smith is Eddie Valiant, and Sonny is Roger Rabbit.

I’m not kidding. Watch both movies. They fit.

Anyway, the story has its up moments and down moments. Sonny’s a great character, and Smith has enough of that movie star charm to give his role more kick than the script provides. Working best in the movie’s favor is director Alex Proyas’ slick style; the guy who made the horrid, overrated “The Crow” and the clever dark fantasy “Dark City” now uses his eye for unique visuals to upgrade “I, Robot” from forgettable summer junk to forgettable summer junk that looks nifty. It doesn’t hurt that the visual effects, for the most part, at least, look quite convincing, and the various design crews have given the film a nice look.

But “I, Robot” still doesn’t work, partly because the story itself is only so-so, but mostly because it’s easy to see all the lost potential. Also stuck in my brain, right next to visions of “Roger Rabbit,” are memories of two recent Spielberg features. “A.I.” is the obvious one, with its own ideas on robots and humanity. The other is “Minority Report,” for a very simple reason: its future is believable. “I, Robot” places us in the Chicago of 2035, a mere three decades away. And it looks OK, I suppose, but compare it to Spielberg’s work, which spent so much time asking what will the world really be like in the next few decades, and it starts to look like the future world of Proyas’ film is less thought out. Considering the richness of Asmiov’s work, the detail and the complexity of ideas that failed to surface in this film adaptation, “I, Robot” feels like little more than a pale imitation of the two Spielberg works.

Maybe I just hoped that an Asimov-related project would show more smarts. Maybe I couldn’t get myself comfortable with the idea that this is not an adaptation but a loose borrowing of a few key points. Maybe I wanted the intelligent fiction of a great writer instead of the seen-it-before action of a summer popcorn movie. Or maybe the movie’s just not very good. Or maybe still, it’s all of the above. “I, Robot” is a disappointment not because of what it is, but because of what it could have been.

Which reminds me, finally, of the film’s own self-awareness. It seems to know it’s a big, dumb action spectacular, and isn’t afraid to have Will Smith comment on the point. So when we get to the finale, in which our hero must dangle perilously atop a hundred-foot computer thingie straight out of the Death Star, he quips on how people are always building insanely dangerous contraptions in which to place their Big Thingies.

Here’s a thought: skip the ironic comments on how the setting is just another idiotic backdrop for adventure. And skip the backdrop entirely. How about coming up with something new instead? Something fresh, something inventive, something that will challenge the viewer?

Nah. That’d just upset the flow of the Audi commercials.

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