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I, Robot

In the future, we will have robots doing all our manual labor for us. The poor will still be with us, but for some reason, they'll be really happy about having nothing to do. ("A HA!" scream the Republicans.) Thankfully, there will also still be Big Willy Style.

I, Robot actually cuts down on the usual Will Smith shenanigans, as he really does try to subsume himself in the role of Del Spooner, a Chicago homicide detective. Occasionally he still breaks out that smile and the half-mumbled one-liners, but he also goes through the movie with an expression of buried pain on his face that would work if the script had actually fleshed out his problem with robots. Everywhere he goes, he gets accused of bigotry toward our mechanical friends. Perhaps you might find some sort of social statement there, but screenwriter Akiva Goldsman has trouble with subtext. Perhaps the earlier draft by Jeff Vintar was stronger.

Still, under the direction of Alex Proyas, the film moves and looks better than it has a right to be. So loosely adapted from Isaac Asimov's short story collection that it has little more than a title in common, it's a decent pulse-pounder with a peculiar aftertaste. And at least they named the cat Asimov in tribute, even if they quickly throw that plot element away.

Set just thirty years into our future, I, Robot posits a society not too different from our own, except for the robots. They're everywhere, walking dogs, baking pies, doing heavy lifting and all the other things we usually delegate to our kids. The most common robot design looks like a Crash Test Dummy, a sensible design when you think about it. But U.S. Robotics (don't they make modems?) is all ready to launch a new line, the NS-5, that takes the dummy look and ups it into a Steve Jobs wet dream.

On the eve of the launch, their star designer, Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell) commits suicide - Or did he? (Lanning, by the way, was born in 1971 and thus, disturbingly, is younger than this reviewer and possibly anybody else who might care that this movie has so little to do with the Asimov book.)

Lanning and Spooner had a connection which forms some little bit of suspense. That connection also supposedly goes toward explaining Spooner's cyberbigotry. And yet - once it's revealed, almost every scene makes a big deal out of it, thus making Spooner seem like a chump in the first half.

However, you can understand his unease with robots, especially the NS-5s. Proyas stages a scene in a robot factory that does make them seem terribly menacing. Especially when asked to identify a fugitive robot, Sonny (Alan Tudyk) - they chant "one of us" in a manner most creepy.

I'll give Proyas this; in trailers, the robots seemed unimpressive, but in the context of the whole film, their sheer numbers and implacability really do work to create tension. And Tudyk's voice work as Sonny is nothing short of brilliant, a far cry from his equally brilliant work earlier this summer as Steve the Pirate in Dodgeball. Combined with the CG, it creates a robot believably constrained by the three laws of robotics and yet built to get around them; he has a moral dilemma as he struggles to learn what it means to be human.

That element makes this a perfect match for Proyas. In both The Crow and Dark City, the director wrestled with the question of what makes us who we are, and it runs through I, Robot quite subtly. But the script careens from think piece to action thriller, and thus undoes its more delicate points. Who cares what makes a human being when you have to find an excuse for explosions and swarms of robots? And when you've got at least one major character, Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynihan), so robotic that you keep expecting her to rip off a rubber mask and scream, "no, I robot!" Actually, that would have been cool. Proyas tacks on an ending to try to bring it back around, but it's too ambiguous and unsatisfying.

The movie also really doesn't explore the ramifications of the robot-filled society. When the chips are down, the lower classes are ready with their torches and pitchforks, but you have to wonder what they were doing until then. It seems that in 2035, the only viable jobs left are computer programmers, businessmen and cops.

Yipes. The future is here.



Derek McCaw

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