Popcorn and cyborg souls
'I, Robot' uses Asimov's idea to showcase whiz-bang charisma of star Will Smith
Thank you, Mr. Asimov. You are now excused.
After contributing the intriguing title and the moral and ethical backbone for the gleaming, high-tech film invention "I, Robot," the estimable science-fiction author Isaac Asimov is largely relegated to the theater's back row and the clanging conventions of the summer blockbuster come screaming to the fore.
"Suggested by" Asimov's famed, visionary 1950 book of robot stories, "I, Robot" the movie is a slick, calculated amalgam of popcorn and sci-fi components aimed as much as anything at showing off the macho, whiz-bang charisma of star Will Smith.
While it toys lightly with the Asimov themes of racism and prejudice and the perils of relying too heavily on technology, the movie finally owes as much in tone and style to the apocalyptic writings of Philip K. Dick and the dark film adaptations of his "Blade Runner" and "Minority Report."
Nevertheless, Asimov's essential "Three Laws of Robotics" open the film and serve as its cerebral spine.
Briefly, they are: 1) robots may not harm a human being, 2) robots must obey human orders, unless they conflict with law one, and 3) robots must protect their own existence, unless that conflicts with laws one and two.
Director Alex Proyas ("The Crow" and "Dark City") employs those intriguing rules as a starting point for a futuristic thriller that has Smith as Del Spooner, a loose-cannon, wiseguy detective for the Chicago P.D. circa 2035.
It's an era in which technology has been tamed to such a degree that virtually every household has a C-3PO-style robot -- docile, semi-transparent and bland-faced -- to perform routine domestic chores.
But Spooner, who lives in a grungy retro apartment where he fends for himself, is a Luddite curmudgeon where robots are concerned. He scornfully refers to the tin contraptions as "canners" and doesn't trust them for a moment.
So when his old friend, the renowned robotic scientist Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), plummets from a high-rise window to his death, an apparent suicide, Spooner suspects foul play. And immediately he casts a suspicious eye on the burgeoning robot population.
But his stiff-necked police superiors label Spooner a rogue cop, and Lawrence Robertson (smarmy Bruce Greenwood), the smoothly sinister CEO of mega-manufacturer U.S. Robotics, insists that his droids are "three laws safe."
At worst, he argues, Lanning's death might be attributed an "industrial accident."
Unconvinced, Spooner digs around -- with the aid of the coldly unemotional robo-psychologist Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) -- and comes across growing evidence that there's a ghost in these ubiquitous machines in our midst.
Most compelling proof of this lies in the revelations of a sympathetic robot named Sonny (effectively voiced by Alan Tudyk), equipped with new-generation technology that suggests a troubling ability to evolve, to dream, to scheme, and even to display fits of violent anger. Could this portend a rebellion of the machines in which the vaunted three laws are rendered defunct?
Nobody but the dogged Spooner suspects so, but by the time act three rolls around, Proyas and screenwriters Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman (an Oscar winner for "A Beautiful Mind") have craftily set us up for some spectacular, eye-dazzling, march-of-the-robots set pieces.
Here, the film's special-effects team takes over and assaults us with heart-racing, computer-juiced scenes of car chases, shoot-outs and brawls between shocked humans and creepy, blood-thirsty digital droids.
From here on, the subtleties of Asimov's ideas, the intriguing notion of robots with souls, are thoroughly drowned out in the fast-and-furious clatter of action-movie mechanics.
Smith, rightly considered Mr. Summer for past blockbuster performances in things such as "Independence Day" and "Men in Black," runs through his array of wise-acre cracks, bad-boy antics and beefcake poses with effortless aplomb, and his cool presence will likely be enough to satisfy all but the most hyper-critical of sci-fi fans.
"I, Robot" may lack the intricate intrigue of Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report" or the compelling emotional texture of his under appreciated "AI: Artificial Intelligence."
But it does operate with a crisp, impressive, nuts-and-bolts efficiency as its robots do their best song-and-dance to provide us with a smooth summer diversion.
Dennis King 581-8479
movie: “ I , R O B O T ”
Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan and Alan Tudyk
Palace 12, Eastland, Tulsa, Starworld 20, Owasso, Allred Pryor Sapulpa 8, Admiral Drive-in and Cinema 8 (Sand Springs)
Twentieth Century Fox
PG-13 (intense stylized action, brief partial nudity)
* * *
(on a scale of zero to 4 stars)