I, Robot (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When all of the dust from 2004's crumbling blockbusters has settled, I, Robot will likely emerge as the strongest mainstream motion picture of the summer. The best big-budget science fiction film since Minority Report, I, Robot gets high marks not only for storytelling but for its compelling vision of 2035 Chicago. Directed by Alex Proyas, who previously imagined the strikingly noir cityscapes of The Crow and Dark City, I, Robot takes ideas (and a character) presented in Isaac Asimov's classic anthology of nine short stories and uses them as a jumping-off point for a thrilling action-adventure movie. Proper recognition goes to credited screenwriters Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman (and uncredited Hillary Seitz) for remaining faithful to the essential themes of Asimov's writing while taking the story in a different, more cinematic direction. Asimov fans take note, however: this isn't close to a faithful adaptation. In fact, it's not really an adaptation at all.

I, Robot transpires some 30 years in the future, when robots are becoming as familiar an everyday household appliance as refrigerators or vacuum cleaners. But, on the eve of the rollout of the landmark NS5 series, trouble is brewing at U.S. Robotics. Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), the head of robot and cybernetic research, has apparently committed suicide. Technophobe cop Del Spooner (Will Smith) has been called in to investigate, and his first suspicion is that Dr. Lanning didn't kill himself - a robot did it. His prime suspect is Sonny (Alan Tudyk), a robot with personality and who seems to have found a way around the Three Laws of Robotics. Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), a robopsychologist who works for U.S. Robotics, and CEO Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood), are suspicious of Spooner's motives for blaming a robot, and skeptical of his conclusions. But that doesn't stop Dr. Calvin from aiding the detective's investigation and Robertson, who has a lot of money on the line, from pulling out all the stops to end it.

The film's action sequences, which include chases and fights, are anything but generic. They are directed with flair, and that results in them being both tense and involving. The way the robots swarm after Spooner during one of I, Robot's centerpiece scenes is reminiscent of the aliens' attack patterns in James Cameron's Aliens. The film carries a sense of the unpredictable; we're never sure exactly what's going to happen next, and there's no assurance that Spooner will be alive when the end credits roll. These elements, not flashes and bangs, are what make action films suspenseful.

I, Robot starts with the story, which is more intelligent and engrossing than what we have come to expect from movies in this genre. The script uses the Three Laws of Robotics (developed by Asimov and John Campbell) as its foundation. They state: (1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm, (2) A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law, and (3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. Instead of just making these precepts a throw-away aspect of the plot, they are integral to its development and success. Take away Asimov's Three Laws, and there is no movie.

I, Robot tinkers with ideas that have always fascinated science fiction fans. At what point does a personality simulation become a personality? Where is the line that divides a machine from a living being? When does consciousness occur? And at what point does an entity achieve the ability to interpret the Three Laws as it sees fit, not as they were intended? There's plenty of thought-provoking material in I, Robot - certainly enough to keep a thinking viewer attuned to the plot while never slowing down the proceedings or dulling the action. I, Robot deserves to be called "smart." It earns that distinction during nearly every frame of its 115-minute running time.

The setting - 2035 Chicago - is meticulously realized. Like in Minority Report, a great deal of thought went into imagining what the near future might look like. (Admittedly, however, I think much of what I, Robot postulates is too sophisticated for 2035. A better match to the technology evident in the film might be 2070.) Nothing in the film is outrageous. In fact, many aspects of life in 2035 aren't that different from what they are today. And there are some neat touches (watch how Spooner's car is "parked" after he arrives at U.S. Robotics). There are no phasers or lasers for weapons - the cops still use good old fashioned guns. Aside from that, the film looks stunning - but what else would one expect from the director of an eye-popping spectacle as Dark City?

I, Robot features some of the best uses of CGI special effects ever. Put this alongside the Star Wars prequels and The Lord of the Rings as a primer for the seamless incorporation of special effects. There's a lot of computer work in I, Robot, but it's never obvious or evident. It rarely calls attention to itself, and it is not clumsily inserted . When Will Smith interacts with a special effect, we forget that it's an actor posturing with something drawn in by computer. After seeing a lot of cheap effects work that looks like it was exported from a computer game, it's refreshing to see something of such high quality.

Another thing that I, Robot does is to prove that Will Smith can carry an action/adventure film on his own. Without support from Martin Lawrence, Tommy Lee Jones, Gene Hackman, Jeff Goldblum, or Kevin Kline, he shows that he's got enough charisma and energy to hold a viewer's attention. Plus, he can deliver the mandatory one-liners with as much brio as Schwarzenegger or Willis. Despite the physicality of the role, Smith manages to connect with the audience in everyman fashion, and, although the part requires a certain amount of wit, he doesn't play it like a clown. Effective, but not outstanding, secondary work is provided by Bridget Moynahan (The Recruit), who plays the lead human character from Asimov's stories. Bruce Greenwood is instantly recognizable as a bad guy, because he has become one of Hollywood's favorite villains ever since he graduated from the obscurity of Atom Egoyan films (which still represent his best work to-date).

Although I, Robot isn't quite as pulse-pounding or intellectually challenging as Minority Report, it stimulates many of the same areas of the brain, and causes the body to pump nearly as much adrenaline. In almost every way imaginable, it satisfies, and that (unfortunately) has been a rare quality at the multiplexes this summer. This is a movie to restore the faith of those who had given up on science fiction after The Matrix Reloaded/Revolutions. By adeptly combining action and ideas, it proves that Hollywood can still produce astonishing entertainment.

I, Robot (United States, 2004)

Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2004-07-16
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1