Archive for Thursday, July 15, 2004

I, Robot’ assembles one slick machine

(PG-13) ***1/2

July 15, 2004

Hollywood only puts out one or two films a year that can genuinely be
considered science fiction.

Not an action movie that takes place in the future ("Payback"), a horror movie set in space ("Ghosts of Mars") or a cinematic video game (the last "Matrix" flick), but the kind of picture that really explores themes of intellect, morality and science.

Projects such as "Minority Report" and "Gattaca" certainly fit this definition. And believe it or not, so does "I, Robot."

This Isaac Asimov-inspired adaptation is the rare summer blockbuster
that supplies actual science fiction - albeit cleverly packaged to look like a "Will Smith movie."

Set in 2035, Smith stars as Chicago police officer Del Spooner. When
investigating the suicide of a renowned engineer at the U.S. Robotics
headquarters, Spooner uncovers a new prototype model that may be linked to the death.

Already, the world is filled with polite, helpful robots, who have taken over everyday chores from mail delivery to garbage collection to dog walking. Their integration into society is as commonplace as desktop computers. And at no point has one been charged with a crime.

But something has never quite sat right with Spooner regarding these
mechanical beings. His co-workers and family can't relate to his paranoia about scientific progress, characterizing him as the type who "would have banned the Internet to keep the libraries open."

But when teaming with a U.S.R. scientist (Bridget Moynahan) who specializes in the psychology of the machines, he begins to discover a deeper conspiracy that could affect the fate of humankind.

Advance word on "I, Robot" was that it bore almost no relation to Asimov's classic 1950 novel, which was actually a collection of short stories originally published in Astounding magazine. True, the tale and characters are completely fictionalized. Yet screenwriters Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman have taken a few of the Russian author's main ideas - such as his three laws of robotics - and used them to concoct a futuristic detective story.

Some of the existential meandering about how to define "alive" is familiar to sci-fi fans - most notably the ongoing quest of Lt. Commander Data on "Star Trek: The Next Generation." But these themes resonate in the film, thanks in part to the disquietingly lifelike renderings of the robots - especially one unique creation named Sonny. He's listed in the credits as being played by actor Alan Tudyk, who shared the same type of interaction with the effects department as Andy Serkis did playing Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

The effects and design of "I, Robot" in general are superior. From the monolithic statue that looms over the workers at the U.S.R. skyscraper to the crop-like rows of identical robots that serve as the centerpiece for one of the best chase scenes of the year, the film exploits its $105 million budget for all its worth.

The picture also proves a great vehicle for Smith, who during the last few years has made one cinematic abomination after another ("Bad Boys II," "The Legend of Bagger Vance," etc.). He's buff and surly and masterful at delivering the sarcastic put-down. It even gives him an opportunity to "emote," as during a very effective flashback scene that reveals how he gained his lifelong suspicion of the mechanisms.

Gifted Australian filmmaker Alex Proyas ("Dark City") only makes a few missteps in "I, Robot," mostly when he tries too hard to up the action ante. There is one shot in particular where Smith does a gravity-ridiculing leap from a motorcycle and shoots off multiple rounds while in slow motion. It reeks of John Woo.

Otherwise, "I, Robot" is a well-oiled machine that succeeds on a number of different levels. If nothing else, its memorable closing shot achieves a real thematic brilliance by hinting at the dawn of a new technological revolution. It's an image of which Asimov would be
proud.

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