Detective Del Spooner (Will Smith) hates robots. Sure, the ubiquitous mechanical creatures that populate 2035 Chicago perform the mundane chores (carrying groceries, delivering mail) previously handled by people, and the fact that they’re governed by the “Three Laws of Robotics”—which stipulate that robots cannot harm humans, must obey humans, and must protect themselves without violating the first two laws—means that not a single robot has ever committed a crime. But their lack of human instincts and emotion make them, in Spooner’s estimation, untrustworthy servants and protectors. Thus, when famous robotics pioneer Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), mere days before the rollout of the new state-of-the-art NS-5 robots, seemingly commits suicide, Spooner is quick to deduce that the only possible culprit behind the man’s death was his emotional, more-human-than-human robot companion Sonny.
Loosely adapted from sci-fi author Isaac Asimov’s collection of short stories about humans and their mechanized creations, I, Robot yearns to be a thinking man’s cinematic spectacular, embellishing its central murder mystery with philosophical questions about the nature of consciousness for the sci-fi faithful and busy set pieces and a regularly shirtless Will Smith for those uninterested in ethical conversations about the creation of touch-feely automatons. Too often, however, Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman’s schematic script, which reveals its formulaic stripes as soon as Chi McBride’s blustery police chief starts screaming at Smith’s renegade cop, malfunctions. Spooner’s anti-robot grudge stems from past trauma, and the film jackhammers home the point that in a world of ever-present automated technology, the techno-phobic detective wears old-school Converse high tops and, much to the confusion of frigid, logic-driven “robot shrink” Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), owns a 2004-era remote-controlled CD player. Smith refreshingly imbues his trademark sarcasm with bitter surliness rather than his ingratiating Big Willie Style affability. Yet it’s frustratingly dispiriting to realize that Spooner’s investigation into Sonny will—naturally, given Hollywood’s eternal fear of shadowy big business—lead to robot manufacturing titan U.S. Robotics (run by Bruce Greenwood’s corporate snake Lawrence Robertson) and a lame insidious plot aimed at undermining man’s standing atop the evolutionary food chain.
What’s principally missing from director Alex Proyas’s thriller is the awe-inspiring wonder or exhilarating originality that might elevate the film above its mega-budgeted counterparts. Proyas, despite an annoying preference for John Woo-inspired slow-mo shootouts, peppers his whodunit (or is it a whatdunit?) with some technically impressive set pieces involving a car ride in which Spooner is attacked by hordes of buggy robots and a climactic battle atop some futuristic catwalks. Likewise, the uniquely emotive Sonny (portrayed, underneath the character’s special effects exterior, by actor Alan Tudyk) and the humanoid NS-5s—a combination of translucent plastic and skeletal hardwiring that can produce animated facial features—have a creepy, off-putting menace. Still, by substituting the dark plushness of his previous The Crow and Dark City for a cold, metallic sheen reminiscent of Minority Report—and by persistently recalling the metaphysical conundrums of A.I. and the apocalyptic doomsday scenario of Terminator 2—Proyas bestows upon his adventure the inescapable pall of redundancy. While its androids may dream of revolutionary electric sheep, the ghosts in I, Robot‘s multi-million dollar machine are, unfortunately, merely remnants of summer films gone by.