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"An uninspired, recycled action thriller."
"There is no inherent evil here, only robots doing what they were programmed to do."
"Overshadowed by commercialism, "I, Robot" chooses autopilot."
I, Robot  

Cast

Del Spooner: Will Smith
Dr. Susan Calvin: Bridget Moynahan
Lance Robertson: Bruce Greenwood
Lt. John Bergin: Chi McBride
Sonny: Alan Tudyk
Dr. Alfred Lanning: James Cromwell
Chin: Peter Shinkoda
Sarah Lloyd: Emily Tennant
Review July 2004

Inspired by Isaac Asimov's distinguished science fiction anthology, "I, Robot" toys with the concept of artificial intelligence gone awry. It stars Will Smith as detective Del Spooner, a Chicago cop of the future caught in the middle of a unique murder mystery. That mystery involves the recent death of Dr. Alfred Lanning, the father of the modern robot, whose death could be the result of a robot malfunction, a violation of one of the fundamental laws governing all robots, or something more serious - a shift in the relationship between man and machine. As the film regurgitates situations and characteristics from others in the same genre, it becomes apparent that there is very little originality and enthusiasm in the handling of its subject matter. Even more importantly, the unique blend of science and fiction that Asimov earned a reputation for is missing. And unfortunately, that only leaves an uninspired, recycled action thriller.

At the heart of "I, Robot" are Three Laws of Robotics :

    1.  A robot may not harm a human or, by inaction, allow a human being to come to harm
    2.  A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law.
    3.  A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.

In the year 2035, robots are hard coded with the above laws as a failsafe mechanism for mankind. After all, robots are made to help, not harm, as they perform a variety of tasks from grocery shopping to garbage collection to walking the dog. Yes, mankind has become dependent on such technology, thanks in part to Dr. Alfred Lanning, a robo-physicist for U.S. Robotics who created the laws of robotics and is currently developing a new robot (NS5 model) capable of expressing human emotion. But before his work can be completed, Dr. Lanning is found dead in what looks to be an apparent suicide.

Hand picked to investigate the scene is Chicago homicide detective Del Spooner. Spooner is a rough and tough police officer with a fetish for Converse sneakers and Stevie Wonder, not to mention a grudge against everything robotic. Despite resistance from virtually everyone, including his own boss, Spooner is determined to prove that one of the fundamental laws has been broken. While searching Lanning's office, Spooner and Dr. Susan Calvin, the robot's human mentor, discover one of the newer models behaving abnormally. The robot's name is Sonny, a creation of Lanning's with an inquisitive and reactive nature. Sonny refuses to be interrogated and decides to bolt, leading the two on a roller coaster ride - one that hints at a darker future for all of mankind, a future controlled exclusively by robots.

The novel "I, Robot" is a science fiction masterpiece that tracks the maturity of the robot from its origin in the present day to its more sophisticated, nearly completed form in the future. Through 9 distinct short stories, Isaac Asimov writes about crazed, telepathic, political, and comedic robots. Heck, he even writes about a robot that controls the whole world. Multi-layered and forward thinking, the book is a fantastic read, exploring the ethical and theoretical possibilities of robotic life while simultaneously questioning the essence of human life. Who am I? Where do I come from? And why do I feel? These are the some of the questions that lie at the center of our own existence, let alone that of artificial life.

Yet, despite a profound basis, the film version of "I, Robot" takes an odd detour. Using Will Smith's previous summer successes as a blueprint, director Alex Proyas morphs the collection of stories by Asimov into an action clunker, devoid of science and real imagination. Certainly, bits and pieces of Asimov's philosophies echo through Sonny, the robot on the verge of spontaneity, dreams, and emotion. But it's not really what Asimov envisioned. Instead of making artificial intelligence the heart and soul of the film, Proyas focuses almost exclusively on action, building unnecessary and unconvincing confrontations between robots and humans in an attempt to put good versus evil. And it's really unconvincing because there is no inherent evil here, only robots doing what they were programmed to do.

The root of this film's woes can be found in its script. Originally, "I, Robot" began as a stage play entitled "Hardwired" and was supposed to represent the tenth story in Asimov's anthology. But the project failed to take shape and somehow found its way to Bryan Singer and Disney for further development. After Disney played with it, they passed it to Fox, where Proyas and writer Jeff Vintar expanded it into a big budget motion picture, eventually pulling Akiva Goldsman in for final revisions. But the problem with this, from my own personal experience, is that while scripts can migrate from writer to writer, character development often gets buried along the way. Here, the buried characters are all the human characters, who come across one dimensionally and emotionless. Spooner never deviates from his prejudice; Dr. Susan Calvin is surprisingly inept despite her status; characters like Lt. John Bergen are stereotyped; and Farber, the boy Spooner has a need to father, is left undeveloped and unexplained. And that leaves Sonny, a robot who seems to evoke more human qualities than the central characters in the film.

While the special effects such as the futuristic skyline of Chicago, the stylish look of the NS5s (their eyes are most impressive), and the hovering automobiles and parking features are nice, you get the feeling that most of it has been borrowed or mirrored from somewhere else. From "Minority Report" to "Attack of the Clones" to "Terminator 2" to "The Matrix," the effects are solid, but nothing ground breaking. Just like "Spider-Man," in which the CGI superhero defies gravity with quick, jerky motions, so too do the robots when leaping off of carriers and onto buildings. In fact, I'm told that the motion technique was copied from Weta's work on Gollum in "The Two Towers." But it somehow seems amateurish. Even more disturbing is the controversy surrounding the look and feel of the robots, possibly lifted from those love making humanoids in Bjork's video entitled "All is Full of Love."

Regardless of originality, "I, Robot" disappoints because it is too ordinary. When you look at the quintessential film in this genre, namely "Blade Runner," you see a film that perfectly blends A.I. with purpose, action, and intrigue. Unfortunately, "I, Robot" is not in the same league. It can only sustain the action, failing to captivate us with a single broken law and failing to fulfill a purpose without Asimov's inquisitive nature of science. Overshadowed by commercialism, "I, Robot" chooses autopilot. And for that, it's about as appropriate as an NS5 telling Spooner on the freeway: "You are experiencing a car accident."



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