Celluloid Lane: "I, Robot"

irobotsmall Earlier this week I was lucky enough to attend a pre-release screening of "I, Robot", 20th Century Fox's cinematic take on the short stories of Isaac Asimov.

If you aren't already familiar with Asimov's impressive sci-fi collection, let me get you up speed with his Three Laws of Robotics:

1. A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First and Second Laws.

In theory, these Laws seem kind of perfect and fool-proof, right? Robots are good, robots help people, robots stay safe. And that's exactly what we see as "I, Robot" (the movie) begins. In the futuristic city of Chicago set in 2035, humans and robots mingle seamlessly as machines have taken over life's dirty work. But a new revolution is on the horizon, as a brand-new model called the NS-5, manufactured by corporate giant U.S. Robotics (USR), is about to be shipped to households in numbers that will swell the robot population to 1 unit to every 5 humans. The movie cleverly incorporates Asimov's Laws into the slogan USR has created on billboards around the city touting the NS-5's guarantee: "Three Laws Safe!"

Detective Del Spooner (Will Smith) is a vintage-loving cop wary of robots and their infinite logic. He doesn't trust their inability to make emotionally-charged choices and suspiciously awaits a big malfunction. When the facts on a suicide from inside USR's headquarters don't add up, you can bet Spooner's on the case. It's at this point that he's introduced to Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), a shy, brilliant robot psychologist working for USR and lacking a few good ol' human social skills. Together they try to figure out the mystery behind this death with the help of one very unique NS-5 robot named Sonny, one that is markedly different from its peers.

I'm not going to give away the plot, so if you're intrigued by what you've read so far, you'll probably dig this film. The sci-fi aspect alone is fascinating, and a surprisingly believable peek into a future Chicago is carefully thought-out and a joy to observe. "I, Robot" also claims to feature the most advanced CGI character ever on film (the robot Sonny), and I imagine you tech buffs will have a field day debating this film's proper rank on the special effects scale. It looked pretty good to me, but I also suspect that SFX are like megapixels to my eyes: once the picture looks good, further advances provide diminishing returns.

And forgive me for pointing out the obvious here, but action movies have become so utterly, painfully obvious and predictable (e.g. hero/sexy woman/danger/car chase/explosion/sexual tension/car chase II/ injury almost to the point of death/motorcycle chase once car is demolished in climactic car chase III) that I have a hard time accepting them time after time. Will Smith, already a proven actor capable of more than guns and one-liners, offers up little more here than big muscles and weak jokes. I'm not surprised, but rather disappointed, with both the film's producers and the enthusiastic audience for allowing this kind of uncreative nonsense to seep into every freakin blockbuster released in the last ten years.

Ok so it wasn't perfect, but I liked the movie. Good premise, good adaptation of a science fiction concept first delivered over half a century ago, good effects. Just don't expect twists and turns beyond the Hollywood norm and you'll be fine.