A humans vs. robots saga that feels machine-made, “I, Robot” looks to have been assembled from the spare parts of dozens of previous sci-fi pictures. Effect is doubtless due to the fact that many elements of Isaac Asimov’s prescient 1950 collection of nine stories have been mined, developed and otherwise ripped off by others in the intervening years, although that’s no excuse for the lack of freshness and personality in this $100 million-plus CGI extravaganza. Genre devotees and Will Smith fans should help launch this second of Fox’s trio of big sf/fantasy summer releases (after “The Day After Tomorrow” and before “Alien Vs. Predator”), but prospects for a prolonged flight aren’t promising.
Aussie helmer Alex Proyas showed a flair for creating artificial, self-contained universes as well as for fusing effects with real action, in his first two features, “The Crow” and “Dark City.” With this payoff picture, however, his touch abandons him, as this vision of Chicago 2035 seems like an indifferent and artistically unappealing hodgepodge of hypothetical futures already glimpsed elsewhere.
The collision of man and machine, allied with the notion the latter can be endowed with minds and even souls of their own, constitutes a theme nearly as old as speculative fiction itself. The influences on “I, Robot,” long planned as an Arnold Schwarzenegger project and eventually merged with Jeff Vintar’s original script “Hardwired,” palpably include, among others, “Metropolis,” “2001,” “Colossus: The Forbin Project,” “Logan’s Run,” “Futureworld,” “Blade Runner,” the “Terminator” series, “A.I.,” “Minority Report” and, God help us, “Bicentennial Man.”
Downplaying his trademark charm and humor to dangerously diminished returns, Will Smith plays Windy City homicide detective Del Spooner, a divorcee whose most evident eccentricities are an aversion to the technology that dominates the world 30 years hence and a taste for archaic music and fashion dating back at least to 2004. This predilection occasions, in the film’s opening scene, the first of what turn out to be many product placements, as Spooner has a thing for ultra-retro Converse sneakers. Detailing of the cop’s morning routine also provides the opportunity, although hardly the justification, for a full-body nude shower scene that provoked audible femme reaction at the preview screening and could bolster the current argument that what’s PG-13 today wasn’t your daddy’s PG-13.
Spooner is called in to investigate the suspicious death of a visionary robotic scientist (James Cromwell) on the eve of the mass distribution of the most sophisticated domestic mechanized beings yet from the biggest such company in the world, U.S. Robotics. Spooner, who admits to a prejudice against robots, smells murder, and a robot murder at that, although his theory flies in the face of Asimov’s famous three laws for the integration of robots into human society: A robot cannot harm a human being or allow one to be harmed, a robot must obey human instructions unless they contradict the first law, and a robot must protect its own existence unless it conflicts with the other two laws.
Such are the intertwined vested interests of the governmental/industrial complex that Spooner, after being discouraged from pursuing his leads, is thrown off the police force altogether. But certain there’s a renegade robot running around that has broken the accepted codes of conduct, Spooner persists in his investigation, as often as not in the company of icy USR psychologist and robot humanizer Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), who could use a little humanization herself.
Suspect is Sonny, an example of the latest line of robots, one with a sculpted human-shaped face, buffed metal body, exposed cable musculature and a voice that, in its polite and calm articulation, more than echoes that of HAL in “2001.” In the manner that Andy Serkis created body movements and then supplied the voice for Gollum in the last two “Lord of the Rings” films, so has Alan Tudyk (who played the “pirate” player in “DodgeBall”) done for Sonny, whose physical presence, like those of his fellow robots, has been rendered via computer in a way both technically superb and dramatically indifferent.
It shortly becomes apparent that the new generation of robots is geared for revolution, and that with their great strength, mobility and numbers, robots will put the “suicidal” reign of humankind to rest once and for all. Clash provokes a succession of chases and combat scenes that becomes progressively more farfetched, climaxing in a cataclysmic battle in the yawning central shaft of the USR skyscraper that would tax the antigravitational powers of Spider-Man or Batman, much less a Chicago cop like Spooner.
Along with the severe sense of deja vu concerning the robots, a major problem is the lack of dynamic between Spooner and Dr. Calvin. Latter role is conspicuously underwritten but, even at that, Moynahan fails to bring desired layers of braininess, ambiguity, inner conflict or motivation to a part that needed something — anything — to animate it. Tight wardrobe choices that fit her like straightjackets are further detriments.
Even the generally irrepressible Smith has been tamped down to an unreasonable extent, to the point where he expresses little other than generalized determination. Bereft of his usual sense of cocky impudence and impulsiveness, the star is left with standard-issue contrariness. Dialogue contrived by Vintar and rewriter Akiva Goldsman is lackluster in the extreme.
Given the time and money poured into this enterprise over the years, the bland, unparticular nature of the result is a disappointment. Aside from some vast cityscapes that show recognizable Chicago landmarks mixed in with futuristic architectural achievements (pic proper was shot in Canada), there’s little that’s arresting in the film’s view of urban life 30 years on: Rotary-movement, all-directional car wheels, here underpinning what look like advanced versions of the Audi TT, have been seen before, and the wealth of speculative specifics offered by a film such as “Minority Report” is nowhere present. Clothing, hairstyles and other era-marking details could just about pass as present-day.
Long before its predictable resolution, “I, Robot” asserts itself as a failure of imagination, a look at the future that doesn’t grab the mind and transport the viewer to a place one’s never been to before; in fact, it seems like exceedingly familiar terrain. Technically, pic is very accomplished — just what one would expect from a machine.