WFTB Score: 8/20
The plot: In the Chicago of 2035, robots live side by side with humans, prevented from harming them by Dr Alfred Lanning’s ‘three laws’. Detective Del Spooner hates robots, so when he’s called to Lanning’s murder – apparently caused by a new generation of automaton – he’s all ears. However, the more he gets to learn about the main suspect, the more intriguing, and dangerous, his investigation becomes.
You might describe Del Spooner (Will Smith) as a technophobe; for while he embraces the digital era enough to play old-fashioned compact discs, he ignores the rest of the mid-21st century technology around him and – for a reason that has something to do with a water-filled dream – specifically despises robots, which, with the introduction of US Robotic’s new NS-5 model, are about to become ubiquitous. Spooner’s downer on the ‘bots is causing concern to his boss Lt Bergin (Chi McBride), and the situation isn’t helped when Del is summoned to a murder scene by a hologram of the victim, old friend Dr Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell). Shown round USR by psychiatrist Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), Spooner seems to find his suspect in disobedient – and uniquely self-aware – robot Sunny (voiced by Alan Tudyk); but as Spooner delves deeper he has to risk life and limb, because someone at USR is desperate to stop him getting to the truth.
I, Robot is inspired* by legendary science fiction author Isaac Asimov, specifically his three laws of robotics (in brief: 1) robots must not harm humans, 2) robots must obey humans unless doing so breaks law 1, 3) robots can defend themselves unless doing so breaks laws 1 and 2); and this intelligent core superficially makes the film a very attractive package: a crime thriller with a sci-fi twist, the well-worn path of the cop with a troubled past embellished by fancy special effects and pressing ethical questions, all gilded with the glitz of Will Smith’s involvement. On the plus side, a number of elements are pulled off very well, not least the unpredictable route the story takes; not to give the game away, but the logic that lies behind the film’s ultimate twist is compelling – if you charge robots with protecting human life, then make them arbitrate in situations where not everyone can live, something eventually has to give.
I, Robot’s atmosphere is initially impressively sombre, Smith investing Spooner with a world-weariness to match his tragic backstory, the film dropping casual hints about his secret (and why Spooner and Lanning knew each other). The design’s good, too, with the cute NS-4s about to be replaced by the rather disconcerting NS-5s. Sunny’s sentience is fascinating – his development is the heart of the film – and it’s satisfying that Bruce Greenwood’s Lance Robertson, the boss at US Robotics, is slimy but, perhaps, only looks like the bad guy.
So why the drab score? Well, whilst I, Robot does have intelligent and thought-provoking aspects, as the film goes on they are almost entirely buried beneath scenes that scream ‘I am a Blockbuster!’ for all they’re worth. When the action-centred set-pieces take over, Alex Proyas loses control of the visuals: during the destruction of Lanning’s house with Spooner inside, the CGI is iffy and the shaky-cam horrible, and the finale is simply a case of overload. More telling than either of these, though, is a central scene where Spooner’s car is set upon by two truckloads of angry NS-5s. The action takes place in a silver tunnel, with a silvery car attacked by silvery lorries and silver robots, and the overall effect is dreadfully unconvincing, Will Smith marooned against a completely virtual backdrop (Audi’s product placement is thoroughly reprehensible, of course, but that’s the least of the scene’s troubles). This one scene is so distractingly fake that it almost single-handedly ruins the movie, which is a shame since most of the CGI work (robots going about their business in Chicago’s crowded streets) is thankfully unobtrusive.
I, Robot also suffers from other afflictions caused by its Big Summer Movie aspirations. The script falters whenever it tries to be funny, and while I don’t want to be down on Akiva ‘please don’t mention Batman and Robin’ Goldsman, I did sense his dread hand in lines like ‘You’re the dumbest dumb person I ever met’ and the wince-making coup de grâce, ‘You have so got to die!’ There are also crass jokes about Spooner’s ex-wife (who never gets a chance to defend herself), and despite the futuristic setting some clichés never die – Bergin demands that Spooner hands over his badge, though of course it makes no difference to his investigations. I didn’t have a clue why Shia LaBeouf’s horny young brat was in the film, or why Spooner would be his buddy. Finally, being a wannabe blockbuster, there has to be a hint of romance between Spooner and Calvin; but while Calvin’s clinical lack of emotion works well for her job, it’s clear that neither Moynahan nor Smith want anything to do with the script’s attempts to suggest a mutual, if grudging, attraction.
Sometimes captivating, sometimes frustratingly corny, I, Robot has to be considered a missed opportunity, a movie compromised by the need to be the Big Thing of 2004. And while I stand by the praise I’ve given to the film’s themes, its issues – and some of its action – have already been explored articulately in films such as Blade Runner, Terminator and 2001 (incidentally, looking the other way, this movie makes Eagle Eye seem even more embarrassingly derivative than ever). I, Robot is clearly better than Eagle Eye, and more exciting than Chris Columbus’ Bicentennial Man: but it could have been so much more.
NOTES: Though not enough, apparently. I’m not qualified to comment on how much the film honours or dishonours Asimov. I know almost nothing about the man, except that he had the best muttonchops this side of Mungo Jerry’s Ray Dorset.