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Lifeless Robot

Movies | I, Robot, "suggested" by the stories of Isaac Asimov, has the plot outline but none of the paranoia

Issue: "Berger can't keep a secret," July 31, 2004

There's great paranoia potential for a movie about a society in which robots have become fully integrated, their ubiquity masking the threat that they might turn on their creators. I, Robot, "suggested" by the stories of Isaac Asimov, has the plot outline but none of the paranoia. Instead it's a bland retread of sci-fi and summer-action-movie conventions, produced with enough skill to be sometimes entertaining but lacking the courage and intellect to be anything more.

I, Robot (rated PG-13 for intense stylized action and some brief partial nudity) is based on Asimov in that it picks up a few characters and concepts from several of his short stories. But the Asimov references are really just one of several layers on a standard studio vehicle, pulled on like a coat to give the film the appearance of being different from so many more before it.

The always-enjoyable Will Smith plays detective Del Spooner, the only sane man in a near-future world blinded by the limitless possibilities of artificial intelligence. Spooner doesn't trust robots. (We learn late in the film of some overblown emotional baggage that contributes to his phobia.) Convinced that these always polite "can openers" are just waiting to exercise some free will, Spooner's ready to take out a robot at the slightest provocation. His distrust is justified, it seems, by the death of robot pioneer Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell). At first it's an apparent suicide, but Spooner soon discovers that a robot named Sonny is somehow involved.

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There are too many scenes in I, Robot that exist just because they look cool, not because they make any logical sense or fit into the fabric of the story. Thematically, the film shifts Asimov's embrace of technology to an "us versus them" mentality, where the "us" represents emotion and feeling (good humans and the occasional, evolved robot) and the "them" represents logic and reason (most robots and bad humans). Asimov is not Shakespeare - and there's no reason to quibble with a film simply because it alters his text. The problem is that I, Robot has no singular vision at all, leaving almost nothing to prop up the special effects and action sequences.

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