Movie review: 'I, Robot'

EntertainmentMoviesCrime, Law and JusticeScienceFictionWill SmithCompanies and Corporations

3 stars (out of 4)

Midway through the Isaac Asimov-inspired "I, Robot"--in a chase scene with Will Smith as future Chicago cop Del Spooner, surrounded and attacked by vans full of menacing robots--we get something approaching a technology high.

The hundreds of shimmery robot images are so fantastically detailed, yet so obviously an example of modern CGI virtuosity, that they're both scary and amusing. And though "Robot" tops that sequence several times, especially in its climactic cliffhanger battle, what makes the action work is that combination of outlandishly lavish visual technology and Smith's down-home reactions.

Director Alex Proyas' film was inspired by the most famous and justly admired robot stories in all of science fiction, Isaac Asimov's '40s series (later collected in his 1950 book "I, Robot") about U.S. Robots, the company that produces these beings and Asimov's legendary Three Laws of Robotics, which govern their behavior.

It isn't a direct adaptation. The script by Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman ("A Beautiful Mind") uses only Asimov's framework, the Three Laws, two of the series' recurring scientist-characters (Bridget Moynahan as Susan Calvin and James Cromwell as Alfred Lanning), and an idea or two from Asimov tales such as "Reason" or "Liar!"

But it's a high-tech thriller that really works--both because of its eye-popping visual feats and the ideas and humanity behind them.

"I, Robot" is about the robot-hating Spooner's investigation into a mysterious death of top robot scientist Lanning. And it's about Spooner's increasingly nightmarish discoveries about what's going on at Lanning's company, the manufacturing giant that produced Sonny and is about to triple the country's robot population, flooding the market with its latest housekeeping model, the NS-5 Automated Domestic Assistant.

Spooner's finds include the seemingly rogue robot Sonny, whose gentle demeanor masks Bruce Lee-style martial skills and whose whimsical C-3PO-like responses are delightfully voiced and modeled by the human actor Alan Tudyk. Also mixed in are lots of insight from brilliant and comely researcher Calvin; hindrance from the company's quietly hostile CEO Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood); and shivery moments from those hundreds of NS-5s, controlled by the ultimate in artificial intelligence, central brain V.I.K.I. (voiced and modeled by Fiona Hogan).

As he digs, Spooner soon is in "Dirty Harry"-style hot water with his buddy-boss Lt. Bergin (Chi McBride). Partly that's because Spooner is a seeming bigot, prejudiced against robots for reasons we learn midway through.

Spooner's prejudice seems irrational, especially in this future society where prejudice against African-Americans seems to have been wiped out--and where robot behavior is governed by Asimov's Laws, which state that (1) robots may never intentionally harm a human, and (2) robots must always obey human orders, unless they conflict with the first law, and (3) they must preserve themselves, unless their actions conflict with the first or second law.

But even though robots can't harm humans, behave irrationally or run amok, Sonny and others seem to be doing just that. That's a good, if obvious framework for this kind of noir sci-fi mystery thriller and it works for Proyas and his team.

More important, Proyas is a genuine Asimov fan and preserves the spirit of Asimov's world, while magnifying it to "Matrix"-like levels. Like his spectacular fantasies, "The Crow" and "Dark City," this is a great-looking movie that doesn't dwell on its own mind-boggling visuals. Proyas races through his vision of a futuristic Chicago, packed with helicopters and monorails, and so does Smith--the right star for this kind of movie.

After the exertions of "Ali," Smith seems to be relaxing and enjoying himself here. Surrounded by heavy-metal effects, he plays a hipster cop who dresses and acts like a sexy street tough; his humor grounds the whole movie. Smith's Spooner has a playful side that ties him to his own kindly Granny (Adrian L. Ricard) and the sometimes childlike Sonny. And that bond with Sonny, not the mild flirtation with Calvin, is the movie's main relationship; the three form a kind of sexless "Robot Without a Cause" trio.

Like Asimov, Proyas isn't telling a monster tale in the "Frankenstein" tradition of many robot stories, but he still uses fear of machines as a plot engine. Technology is what makes "I, Robot" work well, but it doesn't overpower the picture; the mix of gaudy visuals, action and Will Smith's hip reactions carry the film. The enjoyments of "I, Robot" may seem mechanical, but there's a zing to them.

"I, Robot"

Directed by Alex Proyas; written by Jeff Vintar, Akiva Goldsman, inspired by the short story collection by Isaac Asimov; photographed by Simon Duggan; edited by Richard Learoyd, Armen Minasian, William Hoy; production designed by Patrick Tatopoulos; visual effects supervised by John Nelson; music by Marco Beltrami; produced by Laurence Mark, John Davis. A 20th Century Fox release; opens Friday, July 16. Running time: 1:14 MPAA rating: (PG-13) (intense stylized action and some brief partial nudity).
Del Spooner - Will Smith
Susan Calvin - Bridget Moynahan
Sonny - Alan Tudyk
Dr. Alfred Lanning - James Cromwell
Lawrence Robertson - Bruce Greenwood
Lt. John Bergin - Chi McBride
V.I.K.I. - Fiona Hogan
Granny - Adrian L. Ricard

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
EntertainmentMoviesCrime, Law and JusticeScienceFictionWill SmithCompanies and Corporations
  • BOX OFFICE TOP 5

  • Make a night of it

    Find: • Recommended dining • Recommended bars

Comments
Loading