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With: Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, Bruce Greenwood, James Cromwell, Chi McBride, Alan Tudyk, Shia LaBeouf
Written by: Jeff Vintar, Akiva Goldsman, suggested by Isaac Asimov's book
Directed by: Alex Proyas
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense stylized action and some brief nudity
Running Time: 114
Date: 07/15/2004

I, Robot (2004)

1 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Artificial Unintelligence

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

What has screenwriter Akiva Goldsman been up to since he won his Oscar a few years ago for A Beautiful Mind? Apparently, he has spent countless hours hacking away at Isaac Asimov's novel I, Robot, stripping it of anything resembling characters, intelligence, plot, themes or ideas -- which is basically the same thing he did with A Beautiful Mind.

In fact, his only contribution to I, Robot seems to be stealing from The Matrix and Spider-Man, giving the robots martial arts skills and allowing them to climb walls. What else would you expect from the guy who wrote the duds Batman and Robin (1997) and Lost in Space (1998)?

My burning ambition to read the novel before I saw the movie came up empty, but the credit "suggested by Isaac Asimov's book" says it all. In other words, Goldsman and his partner in crime Jeff Vintar ("Final Fantasy") didn't leave enough of the book to even warrant a proper credit.

So what's left? In the year 2035, Detective Spooner (Will Smith) is a cynical cop not unlike Philip Marlowe in his overall mistrust of everyone and everything. Due to an accident in which a gray area in a robot's programming leaves a little girl dead, Spooner now hates all robots. (A typical Hollywood black-and-white solution to a subtle problem.)

Goldsman and Vintar try to equate Spooner's hatred to that of our racial prejudice today. When Spooner sees a robot running down the street carrying a purse, he "naturally assumes" that the robot has stolen it.

Like Robocop, these robots come with three prime directives that prevent them from killing or hurting a human being in any way. Everyone except Spooner believes that these directives are "foolproof." Guess who's right?

One morning Spooner gets a call from a scientist acquaintance, Dr. Lanning (James Cromwell), who has apparently committed suicide and left behind a hologram. Spooner gets on the case, suspecting that the scientist's robot Sonny (voiced by Alan Tudyk) has actually murdered his master. Soon he uncovers a massive conspiracy that will have robots taking over the city and killing anyone who gets in their way.

Very little in I, Robot makes sense, from the largest plot arc to the tiniest detail. It assumes that the audience is stupid, a complete blank slate that needs to be filled in on everything, even if those details contradict each other. In a tour of the robot headquarters, Spooner learns from his guide, the attractive girl scientist Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), that the entire building is under careful surveillance, "except for the service areas" and the stairwell. What luck! Now, later in the film, the hero can use those same stairwells to enter and exit the building undetected.

Where does all this leave our poor actors? Only Will Smith packs enough punch to break out of the story's generic tedium. I suspect that he invented and inserted his own wisecracks ("I'm sorry... I'm allergic to bulls---") just to break the monotony. In one scene, his brand-new (vintage 2004) Converse high top sneakers get dirty after a chase. His irritation and disgust register in a smart, funny way. One can't see, say, Ben Affleck or Mark Wahlberg delivering the same lines and getting away with it. Those actors would only have dragged the picture increasingly into blandness.

Poor Moynahan (Serendipity, The Sum of All Fears) suffers the worst. She adopts Wahlberg's trick from "Planet of the Apes": when you don't have anything to do, just breathe hard. It looks like you've been running or doing something vigorously. So Moynahan spends the entire film with her mouth hanging open, desperate to look as if she's involved.

Ultimately, the whole thing rests upon the shoulders of director Alex Proyas, who became a science fiction icon with his first two films, The Crow and Dark City, two beautiful examples of restraint and mood. Now, with a stopover for the gutless Garage Days, Proyas has adopted the new Hollywood method of shaky action. The chase/fight scenes in I, Robot move so fast and shake around so much that we can't see a thing. If one were to look at these scenes frame by frame, you'd see only so much unusable footage. It's all a blur.

If someone like Michael Bay or Brett Ratner had directed I, Robot, its sheer awfulness might not have been so surprising. But Proyas is a director who has given us two thoughtful sci-fi movies that were based on ideas and rooted in the human condition. Now he's graduated to a hunk of expensive, lifeless junk. Who knows if he'll ever find his way back?

DVD Details: I wonder if the people who enjoyed this movie on the big screen will continue to be fooled once they've seen it on the small screen, stripped of all its splendor? The DVD comes with an audio commentary track by director Proyas and writer Goldsman, a "making-of" featurette, a "Fox Inside Look" and a still gallery.

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