I, Robot

“Robots, ha ha, they’re really scary, but Big Will make their day like Dirty Harry. They wanna be like people, start a revolution, so Del Spooner, P.D., is starting retribution.”

OK, there is no ridiculous movie-based rap by Will Smith at the end of I, Robot. Mixing philosophy in with things going boom makes a movie Way Too Serious for such things.

But the words and ideas in the script (tenuously taken from Isaac Asimov’s short stories) are no less derivative and obvious than, say, “Will2K” — particularly if you’ve seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, The Matrix, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence or pretty much any technology-versus-human movie ever made.

If you’ve never seen one before, well, maybe this will be the best sci-fi movie ever made. Otherwise, it’s as much a shiny new retread of older models as the ’bots gone bad in its storyline. Still, its flashy upgrades are an easy-enough sell from an entertainment standpoint. The robot design is intriguing and, as characters, they’re seamlessly integrated with real actors. And, per normal, there are several empty-headed, but fun, action sequences.

Robots are everywhere in Chicago 2035, acting as pill reminders, garbage collectors, food-service workers. And homicide detective Del Spooner (Smith) suffers severe phobia of the technology surrounding him. He doesn’t trust the robots. (The film uses his fondness for his Grandma’s sweet potato pie, “vintage” 2004 motorcycles and Converse footwear as strange nostalgic signifiers.)

There are three laws, which can’t conflict — robots must obey human orders, bring no harm through action or inaction to humans and protect themselves. The rules go out the window when robot pioneer Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell) is found dead and the presumed suspect is one of his more advanced robots, Sonny (voiced and acted by Alan Tudyk before a Gollum-like effects do-over).

As Spooner’s investigation intensifies, he follows Lanning’s left-behind clues that lead both to a robot uprising and the confirmation of his fears.

Sonny and the newer, better NS5 robots look like wiry, walking iMacs, which is a great design scheme. After all, if we can see the hardware inside them, and their wonderfully expressive faces have that soft transparency, why should we be afraid? When that red light starts glowing like an evil hard drive in the final act act, though, watch out.

It’s too bad the script downloads the same metaphysical mumbo-jumbo from earlier, better works. Sonny asks “Will I dream?” just like the computer in 2010 and the notion of computer takeover feels like story seedlings for The Matrix. In fact, the robot revolution was given more disturbing immediacy in The Animatrix, an animated bridging chapter.

And as charming as he is, Smith strains against the uneven blend of humor and charred psyche his character is supposed to have. One minute, he’s cracking wise about cats, the next remembering a recent traumatic (and robotic) event. That latter narrative thread is the film’s one true flash of greatness, finding drama within calculations of probability and logic.

With occasionally pulse-pacing action, I, Robot is never boring, but it’s not the unnerving jolt of paranoia and fun it could have been. The most frightening suggestion in it is that in 31 years, two beers will run you $46.50 before tip.

An award-winning film critic and features reporter, Nick has professionally written or gabbed about movies for Illinois newspapers, national syndicates, Playboy, The Art Immortal, The Film Yap and Midwest radio stations. He once drummed in a Billy Joel cover band known as Silly Joel and freely presents his Letterboxd page to engage and mock if you wish: https://letterboxd.com/ragekage79/

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