Loosely adapted from Isaac Asimov’s seminal sci-fi anthology on robot behaviour, I, Robot features Will Smith as a 2035 Chicago detective
trying to understand why a robot violated its most basic programming by killing a human. Visionary director Alex Proyas, whose The Crow (1994) and Dark City (1998) honed the unique visual sense on display here, oversees an intermittently exciting affair that eventually fails to deliver on its early promise.
In this depiction of the near future, human beings have become almost completely dependent upon robots to carry out any given task from their everyday lives. As technology has advanced, so too have the Robots’ capabilities, but each is programmed to obey humans without question and most importantly to never harm a human. The abuse of this First Law Of Robotics kickstarts what might been an intelligent exploration of robot intelligence, pre-programmed responsibility and corporate conspiracy, and while attention is held in the film’s opening quarter, the presence of Will Smith ensures a quick return to generic convention. His Del Spooner is a robot-hater (shoulder scars and recurring nightmares eventually explain why), but this is no character study or slow-burner. His sphere of influence is Converse trainers, Stevie Wonder and five sugars in his espresso. Deckard he is not.
Smith does his usual shtick, looking once again the toned and triumphant movie star he is. Proyas’s camera fetishises him throughout – lifting weights, showering, even crying – and his trademark one-liners and world-weary charm will never become tiresome. Unfortunately, the supporting players are mere window-dressing: Bruce Greenwood’s corrupt corporate oozes a tired kind of sleaze, braniac Bridget Moynahan plays the love interest with requisite compliance, and it says a lot for the film when the most three-dimensinal character, robot architect James Cromwell, spends most of the film projected as a hologram. Much too will be made of the robot-on-the-run Sonny, a CGI composition layered on top of a performance by Alan Tudyk. While comparisons with The Lord of the Rings’ Gollum are a little wide of the mark, it is refreshing to see such a character voiced with charm and imbued with humanity and wit. Perhaps all the actors know subconsciously that this is Smith’s show, and consequently Smith lacks any real sparring partner. Shorn of a Tommy Lee Jones or a Martin Lawrence, he can often look lost without a po-faced partner, and I, Robot suffers all the more for it.
Visually, the film is stunning. It comes as a great relief to see the Proyas eschew the rain-sodden and neon-lit metropolis that all post-Blade Runner futures have tended to be. The vehicles – souped-up versions of Audi TT’s – seem impressively prescient, and little touches (the demolition robot, a one-bladed fan, hologrammatic police yellow tape) are fun additions. Proyas and DoP Simon Duggan have clearly studied A.I. (2001) and Minority Report (2002), and I, Robot can be just about pitched in the middle. It lacks the glacial pacing of the former and the visual flourishes of the latter, but at least displays a sense of humour. Whereas Spielberg intuited the future as one devoid of crime in which humans and robots coexisted harmoniously, I, Robot is not afraid to mix these sci-fi complexities with more conventional blockbuster ingredients. While Proyas may lack Spielberg’s pacing and tonal assurance, at least I, Robot is not overburdened by earnestness,
Ultimately, the film is a not too fanciful look at what could become of our increasing reliance upon artificial intelligence and its consequences. What lets I, Robot down is its indecisiveness; it suffers from not really knowing what it wants to be. Is it a Will Smith futuristic edgy comedy, an philosophical treastise, a dystopian future drama, a love story? So many generic elements are scattered into the pot that the result is a perfectly functional summer movie, hamstrung by a nagging sense of mechanical button-pushing that ultimately hampers its impact. Yes, there’s a great car-chase and a wonderful early scene in a warehouse full of robots, but Asimov’s legacy deserves better than this. The last adaptation was Bicentennial Man (1999), so at least this is a step in the right direction.