Friday, July 23, 2004

'I, Robot' nice to look at, hollow at its core

—Originally published 7.23.04

Box-office receipts say otherwise, but it's time for Will Smith to find himself a new summer character because he's been playing essentially the same one, oh, forever.

Smith's charming, smart-alecky personality has propped up many an average summer flick, but the act wears out quickly in his new movie, "I, Robot."

Directed by Alex Proyas ("The Crow") and "suggested" by the Isaac Asimov short-story collection (as the end credits tell us), "I, Robot" takes place in 2035, a time when cars drive themselves and don't run on gas, and three beers cost $46.50. The story follows Chicago cop Del Spooner (Smith), an anachronistic techno-phobe who sports leather and Converse All-Stars while struggling to convince the world it's too dependent on machines.

Spooner is a bit of a loose cannon, because everyone else seems to have no trouble with the notion of one robot for every five humans. The character should feel familiar, because it's different in name only from Smith's other moneymaking aliases, including Det. Mike Rowley ("Bad Boys"), Agent Jay ("Men in Black"), Capt. Jim West ("Wild Wild West") and Capt. Steve Hiller ("Independence Day"). Here Smith wisecracks at everything that moves -- humans, robots, cats, whatever -- yells and runs a lot, and little else.

The cop's radar is going full-throttle right from the start, as he's called to investigate the "suicide" of Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), head of the robotics division for parent company USR. Spooner is convinced Lanning's best bot, Sonny (voiced by Alan Tudyk), killed the doctor in direct violation of his programming. With the help of "robot psychiatrist" Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), Spooner spends the rest of the two-hour film trying -- against seemingly insurmountable odds and robots -- to prove his case and save the world from the machines (don't call him Neo).

For all of Smith's pre-release chatter about going "smart" for summer, there is only a marginal difference between "I, Robot" and his other warm-weather flicks, and this one isn't ultimately as satisfying as "Independence Day" or the first "Men in Black". The main question of the movie -- is artificial intelligence a good thing? -- is a good one to ponder, but this film doesn't slow down long enough to really consider it. Instead, the question is ultimately buried beneath an avalanche of vigilante heroics and special effects and then answered in a bit of corny dialogue right before the end.

Yet it's those effects -- as opposed to Big Willie Style -- that save "I, Robot" from the summer garbage bin. Produced by Weta Digital, the wizards behind "The Lord of the Rings," the metalheads and action sequences in "I, Robot" are spectacular, further distancing the New Zealand company from all its competitors -- this is what George Lucas' "Attack of the Clones" should have looked like.

Sonny is a wondrous creation, and even though we know he's computer-generated, the illusion of reality rarely falters. For those who don't care about little things like character development and dialogue, there are several action scenes of note, including Spooner and Calvin tracking Sonny amongst a field of his brethren, and a subterranean car chase in which Spooner's sleek Audi is attacked by a multitude of robots.

But the best action flicks are grounded in humanity and relatable characters; in that respect, Proyas' film never sniffs the territory covered so well by "The Terminator" two decades ago. It's cool to look at, but rarely thrilling.

For a movie that focuses heavily on robots' lack of human emotion, "I, Robot" has little heart of its own.

Grade: C+

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