Sacrificing Isaac

I, Robot owes little to Asimov and much to prior sci-fi cinema.

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I, Robot

Directed by Alex Proyas. Screenplay by Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman. Screen story by Vintar, suggested by Isaac Asimov's book. Starring Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, Alan Tudyk, and James Cromwell. Opens Friday.

Will Smith gets more serious (and more naked) with each film.
Will Smith gets more serious (and more naked) with each film.
If you're wondering how Hollywood could possibly adapt Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, a collection of similarly themed short stories bound together by the slenderest of common threads, the answer is that it didn't. The credits for I, Robot read "suggested by Isaac Asimov's book," but the canny sci-fi fan will notice several other "suggestions" from more familiar sources. There's the guy chasing down robots despite his fear of heights (see also Blade Runner and Runaway). The dangerous yet emotional robot who's afraid of death, à la HAL 9000 in 2001. The familiar John Woo shot of our hero jumping off a motorcycle into midair, flying in slow motion while firing off guns with both hands. The Hunter-Killer flying machines from the Terminator films, more or less, are used by the Chicago police force, while close facsimiles of the Trade Federation droid transports from The Phantom Menace are in the service of a large corporation. Even the robots themselves are reminiscent of The Animatrix, Osamu Tezuka's Metropolis, and that Björk video by Chris Cunningham.

Meanwhile, the setup, at least initially, is unpleasantly reminiscent of Minority Report and Paycheck, with a cop (Will Smith) in a dystopian near-future falling afoul of a corporate bigwig (Bruce Greenwood) and making decisions that cause most everyone to question his sanity. A top scientist (James Cromwell) has been found dead of an apparent suicide, yet Smith's Detective Del Spooner remains convinced that a robot was the culprit. This hypothesis presents a problem, however, in that such a murder would violate the laws of robotics.

Oh yeah, this is the Asimov part. For those unfamiliar with the author, he posited three laws that every robot should be programmed to obey, and they go a little something like this: A robot may not harm a human or allow a human to be harmed, a robot must obey human orders except those that would harm other humans, and a robot must protect itself except if doing so would harm another human or violate an order. Aside from these laws, the dead James Cromwell character, and the pivotal role of Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), the film's script is mostly the creation of screenwriter Jeff Vintar, who called it Hardwired until the producers figured out that more money could be made by creating an Asimov connection. The producers really ought to have optioned Asimov's The Robots of Dawn instead -- it's one novel-length story, and, like this film, it centers on a murder mystery involving robots.

But here's the important thing, for the ladies: Will Smith does a shower scene! Bridget Moynahan does too, but hers is maddeningly concealed behind frosted glass. Smith, also credited as executive producer, apparently still wants to show off his Ali-enhanced physique as much as possible within the bounds of a PG-13 rating.

Once he's done showering, he displays some mysterious scars, which, like his scary dreams, are just bound to be relevant to the plot at some juncture. Then it's off to the murder mystery, which tries to remain somewhat true to the spirit of Asimov's stories inasmuch as it involves unexpected paradoxes created by the three laws. Since this is a summer movie, however, it also has to have big action setpieces, even when such conflicts with the relatively less important laws of screenplay logic.

All mockery aside, though: Once this movie gets going, it works, and it works well. It has a slow buildup, but its final third manages to generate some eye-popping thrills without the usual obligatory dismissal of all narrative in the face of explosions. It's not as visually unique a movie as some others in the canon of director Alex Proyas (The Crow, Dark City, Garage Days), but the robots, whose colored-plastic-atop-circuitry design was reputedly inspired by iMacs, are very cool, and kids are gonna want an action figure version, like, yesterday! (None are available, alas.) As the main robot, who gives himself the name of Sonny, Alan Tudyk amazes with a Gollum-like ability to create a soul behind motion-capture CG eyes. Who knew that the actor best known as the dorky German in 28 Days and the pirate fetishist in Dodgeball had this in him? Not all the CG is as polished, and in some scenes the bluescreen work is obvious but forgivable.

Smith is, well, Smith. With each movie he seems to get progressively calmer, so his trademark wisecracks are fewer and further between (that's a good thing), and perhaps a tad more subdued herein than you're used to. The characters onscreen even get some laughs at his expense this time. Moynahan has the best rebuttal, "I'm sorry . . . are you being funny?"

Smith's response: "I guess not."

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