Given the film's assembly-line screenplay and mechanistic storytelling, no other explanation seems viable. Certainly no one with a heartbeat or taste would blow so much talent, time and resources on such rubbishy writing. "Suggested," as the credits put it, by Isaac Asimov's 1950 novel of the same title (the credited screenwriters are Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman), directed by the imaginative visual stylist Alex Proyas and starring one of the most charismatic stars in movies, "I, Robot" seemed like a sure thing. The opening few minutes look nifty, and Smith, as a Chicago detective named Del Spooner, a.k.a. Spoon, looks niftier still. A man out of time (it's 2035 and he's sporting old-school Converse sneakers), the robot-allergic Spoon comes across as the kind of guy Harrison Ford would have slurped noodles with in "Blade Runner." No such luck.
The machine world is a staple of cinematic science fiction, animating films from Fritz Lang's 1927 "Metropolis" to James Cameron's 1984 "The Terminator" (starring you know who). Cautionary tales about human evolution and rational thinking, many of these films involve nightmares of authoritarianism, totalitarianism and total war. Asimov plays the dystopian blues with restraint in his book but in the shadow of World War II exhibited little optimism about a human future. The "I" in Asimov's "I, Robot" isn't just a clever nod to Descartes — because the robots "think," they now "are" — but a dark warning. When robots develop something like human consciousness, it may not be long before they develop all the unpleasantness of that consciousness as well. What happens when robot needs and desires — implicit in that ravenous "I" — come up against ours?
What happens here, at least, is that Smith gets to kick robot butt, a lot of robot butt. Although Asimov's core conceit remains intact, the movie essentially plays out like an off-the-rack 1990s action flick. Despite some futuristic flourishes, including cars that look like toasters (albeit really fancy Audi toasters) and disappointingly drab special effects, the movie world of tomorrow doesn't look all that different from the movie world of yesterday. So much so that the action clichés aren't just tediously familiar, they're depressing. Something has gone seriously wrong when a filmmaker like Proyas, who made the beautifully moody thriller "The Crow" and the science fiction-noir hybrid "Dark City," recycles moves from "The Matrix." It's even worse when he slows the action just to show a gun cartridge falling from a chamber as if from a John Woo movie.
In Ridley Scott's landmark film "Blade Runner" (based on a Philip K. Dick novel), the brooding hero played by Ford hunts androids who try to pass as human. Like the novel, the movie employs the idea of runaway machines to score points about the man-made and nearly destroyed natural world. As in "I, Robot," as in our world, the human population in "Blade Runner" has become increasingly machinelike while the machines have become more like people. Eventually, Ford's character (in the director's cut) is revealed to be an android too, a denouement that gives the film's metaphysical grappling a deep poignancy.
The unhappy and presumably unconscious irony of "I, Robot" is that while Smith does his best to prove Spoon as all-too-fallibly human, the filmmakers have done their level worst to establish that he's nothing of the sort.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense stylized action and some brief partial nudity
Times guidelines: Vulgar language, gunplay, violent action, partial male nudity
Will Smith...Del Spooner
Bridget Moynahan...Dr. Susan Calvin
Bruce Greenwood...Lawrence Robertson
James Cromwell...Dr. Alfred Lanning
Chi McBride...Lt. John Bergin
Twentieth Century Fox presents a Davis Entertainment Company/Laurence Mark/Overbrook Films Production, released by Twentieth Century Fox. Director Alex Proyas. Writers Jeff Vintar, Akiva Goldsman. Screen story Jeff Vintar. Suggested by Isaac Asimov's book. Producers Laurence Mark, John Davis, Topher Dow, Wyck Godfrey. Director of photography Simon Duggan. Production designer Patrick Tatopoulos. Film editors Richard Learoyd, Armen Minasian, William Hoy. Special visual effects and digital animation Digital Domain. Visual effects supervisor John Nelson. Music Marco Beltrami. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes. In general release.