I, Robot

July, 2004, Mystery

In a summer already notorious for cinematic clunkers, (White Chicks) overstuffed epics, (King Arthur) and commercially safe sequels, (Spiderman & Shrek Jrs., Harry Potter the 3rd) it should come as no surprise that Will Smith's summer entry would become a box-office champ on its opening weekend. What's almost painfully startling is the slovenly manner in which the best work of a brilliant science fiction writer (Isaac Asimov) can be so appallingly employed by a director, (Alex Proyas) whose previous work ranks among the very best in the genre. 

Smith plays Chicago cop Del Spooner in this mystery/action piece set 30 years hence when early service-oriented robots are about to be replaced by a more sophisticated generation of mechanical creatures having characteristics which make them almost human. Employing Asimov's three principles of robotic design (they can't hurt people, can't let people be hurt, and must protect themselves unless to do so would conflict with laws 1 or 2), the citizenry of the Windy City is happily prepared to surrender ever more control over their daily lives to these perfectly utilitarian examples of high-tech engineering. But are they all that innocent and absolutely incapable of malfunction? When Dr. Alfred Lanning, (James Cromwell) inventor of this latest version of mechanized servants dies under mysterious circumstances leaving a holographic message for Spooner, the detective finds himself questioning the prevailing wisdom about how benign these creatures really are even as his colleagues question his motives and sanity. 

This plot line is as old as the Frankenstein saga, but Asimov's struggle with the issues of free will, the nature of consciousness and the theological implications of designing artificial intelligence devoted only to the satisfaction of human desires makes his short stories among the most thought-provoking pieces of sci-fi fiction ever penned. As a director, Proyas proved with his stunning Dark City that he's fully capable of rendering complex issues of human perception and scientific complexity in visual images that both enlighten and dazzle. But I, Robot is all speeding automobiles and blazing guns, with little thought paid to the subtleties its story involves. A thoroughly pedestrian script focuses instead on making Spooner's character hip rather than exploring the moral gravity of the circumstances in which he finds himself.

. Sporting studs in both ear lobes, a pair of retro Converse-brand sneakers, a doting grandmother and the standard long-suffering but sympathetic boss, Spooner takes on U.S. Robotics, the corporate giant manufacturing the latest models, enlisting Sonny, a prototype crafted secretly by the late Dr. Lanning, in order to finally uncover and expose the truth--but not before destroying about half of The Loop. 

As an actor, Will Smith has been a box-office phenomenon without ever delivering a genuinely convincing dramatic performance, his much Oscar-touted role in Ali to the contrary notwithstanding. He's a star presence, as evidenced by a string of commercially successful films such as Independence Day, Men In Black (1 & 2) and Bad Boys (1&2 as well) along with some sizeable clunkers, (Wild, Wild West, Legend of Bagger Vance). He seems content to present himself over and over again as a cross between the high-school class clown and everyone's favorite mischievous nephew, the perfect combination of boyish charm and adolescent bravado. When he's repeatedly getting his ears boxed by a wiser adult, (Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black for example) he's fun to watch. Without that redeeming constraint and at age 36, the persona is wearing thin and becoming truly annoying.

Sonny is the only redeeming part of this effort; sporting a voice that's an updated version of Hal, (the quietly menacing computer in 2001 A Space Odyssey) a torso of ingenious Tinker-toy design and a face resembling an elongated Apple computer screen, Sonny's search for the parameters of acceptable behavior manages to generate some fitful interest in what's unfolding up there on the screen. At the movie's end, Sonny's forced to struggle with making his own way in the world, but although the film's all about him, Smith's the star, and thus this one's commercial success and artistic failure are his alone.

What a waste of time, talent and a 100 million dollar-plus production budget!

   

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