Reel To Reel:How It Rates: **1/2
Starring: Will Smith
Red Flags: Mild Language, Violence, Brief Partial Nudity (e.g. a side look at Smith's bare butt)
Preconceived Notions: I never read Asimov's collection of short stories.
The Bottom Line: Maybe the filmmakers did, but somewhere in this, a classic got lost.
The three laws of robotics, penned by Issac Asimov, say robots can't hurt anyone, must obey commands, and must protect themselves -- unless doing so would hurt someone. But as Smith's cop character explains himself, rules were meant to be broken. I wish he were talking about the filmmakers, too.
Smith plays Del Spooner, a Chicago homicide detective in 2035 with issues -- some mental, some mechanical. He doesn't like robots, for a reason that will be explained halfway through the picture. He's happily old-school, right down to the remote-controlled (as opposed to voice-activated) CD player in his apartment and his "vintage 2004" Converse All-Stars. But his latest case puts him on the death of a robot designer at USR, U.S. Robotics -- the Procter & Gamble of industrial mechanics. Everybody else thinks it's suicide. Spooner disagrees, and before long, he's onto the theory that a robot is to blame. He's right, of course, but everybody else in the picture, including Spooner's superiors, dismiss it as nonsense. Robots can't hurt people -- it's in the laws. Obviously they can't malfunction either. The simple stubborness of the film's characters to consider the possibility is annoying.
Here we come to a rule of disaster films, one which many action films also adhere to. Repeat after me: "Only One Guy Really Understands What's Going On, But Nobody Will Listen To Him." See my review of The Day After Tomorrow for more on other disaster-film rules. But that isn't so much the problem as the film's disjointed plot. Scenes and characters are pushed together merely as a way to get us from one action scene to the next, a common ailment, or make that a rule, of the genre. Will Smith's character gives us lots of memorable one-liners, but everybody else in the film is one-dimentional. The robots have more depth than most of the people in this film.
How about the effects? Yeah, there are some doozies. But let's be frank here. The more CGI I see, the more convinced I am we are becoming numb to it. The last movie I saw with innovative CGI was Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, hardly sci-fi.
I, Robot has a message for us, but it's thrown in simply as a plot device, not as a moral to base a film around. When we finally see that message, it doesn't tidy up the confusion of earlier scenes. I'm not even going to guess what Asimov would have thought.
If you want to see a truly great sci-fi action film which gets the message and method right, try Blade Runner or Minority Report. It helps that both films were put into the hands of capable directors Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg.
Yes, USR -- U.S. Robotics, is an actual company off the screen. It makes modems. The company's web site explains its name, like the movie, came from Asimov's short story collection. In fact, the company is openly embracing the film, despite the sinister overtones for its celluloid namesake. But I guess the real-life USR won't be making 'bots anytime soon.