Thursday, October 3, 2013


Rule # 1: Hollywood shouldn't make some books into movies.

Take, for example, science fiction author Isaac Asimov's "I, Robot."  This is a classic collection of cautionary short stories about the unforeseen complications in a robot's logic as it struggles to obey the three laws of robotics. Even when the robots appeared insane, Asimov was careful to show that by the lights of the robot's "positronic brains," they are behaving logically.

Rule # 2: Movies with multiple stories don't make millions.

Too many characters.  Too many ideas.  Too much originality.  Too much segmentation.  Consequently, when Hollywood lays its hands on literary legends like Asimov, they dumb down his work.  In the Will Smith mystery-thriller "I, Robot," Australian director Alex Proyas of "The Crow," Oscar-winning "Beautiful Mind" scenarist Akiva Goldsman and "Final Fantasy" scribe Jeff Vintar have retained the three laws of robotics.  Unfortunately, they have turned an otherwise literary classic into a formulaic, action-paced, paint-by-the-numbers, potboiler about an heroic, wise-cracking Chicago cop in the year 2035 who abhors robots. 

"I, Robot" (** OUT OF ****) opens with the three laws of robots.  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 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 or Second Law.

An alarm clock awakens divorced homicide detective Del Spooner (Will Smith of "Bad Boys") to another wonderful day. After a shower scene designed to display Smith's buff body, especially his curiously scarred "Rambo" pectorals, the filmmakers have our swaggering stereotypical lone wolf hero don his ghetto street clothes, unpack a vintage pair of 2004 Converse All-Star sneakers, and cruise off to his first crime scene of the day in his tricked out Audi.  The headquarters of the U.S. Robotics Corporation--a Microsoft-type company—towers against the skyline of Chicago.  U.S. Robotics plans to put a robot in every home.  The company boasts that the ratio will be one robot per five humans.  An unexpected tragedy occurs to threaten this massive robotic roll-out. Apparently, U.S.R.'s chief robot designer, Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell of "Babe"), has committed suicide.  The visionary scientist hurled himself through his office window and fell hundreds of feet to the lobby.  Spooner learns that Lanning had requested him specifically, so Del could listen to a message Lanning recorded for him on a preprogrammed hologram. Initially, Lanning's cryptic remarks mystify Del.

When he visits Lanning's office, he discovers that the good doctor couldn't have jumped through the window. Del tries to break the window next to the window that Lanning shattered.  He barely makes a dent when he smashes a chair against it.  U.S. Robotics scientist, Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan of “Coyote Ugly) is assigned to escort Spooner around the premises.  No sooner does Del realize that the killer may still be in the room than the killer surprises him and escapes.

Eventually, Del captures the robot and interrogates him.  Before he can get far, U.S. Robotics' CEO Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood of "Thirteen Days") storms into the police station.  He demands the return of his property.  Robertson reminds Del that the authorities cannot charge robots with murder.  Not only have robots never posed a threat to humans, but also only humans can be charged with homicide.  Inevitably, Del's world-weary boss, Lieutenant John Bergin (Chi McBride of "Gone In 60 Seconds"), chews him out for crying 'robot' every time something happens to him. Del remains far from convinced, however, about the innocence of robots.  He bears a grudge against them.  During an accident, a truck rammed both his vehicle and another car with a 12-year old girl inside.  Both cars sank into a river.  A passing robot witnessed the accident and dived in to rescue Del. Our protagonist told the robot to save the little girl instead, so he feels guilty about her death and despises robots.

Gee, doesn't this sound familiar? Like a movie from the 1980s? A rebellious but maimed cop battling a corporation with a dark secret.  Hey, didn't Tom Selleck do something like that in the 1984 epic "Runaway?" Or what about 1982's "Blade Runner?" Or "Westworld," where the robots cannot kill humans either.  Del spends the rest of "I, Robot's" predictable 115 minutes trying to prove to everybody that robots are dangerous. He worries especially because his mother (Adrian Ricard of "Bulworth") has won a robot in lottery. Meanwhile, despite all this horrible publicity, Robertson plans to market a new line of robots, and he wants Del off his back permanently. Of course, hard-headed as Del is, he doesn't take no for an answer, even when Bergin takes his badge and suspends him from the force.

Basically, aside from his charismatic performance, Will Smith's futuristic detective doesn't appear too far removed from his wealthy playboy cop in the "Bad Boys" franchise.  Unfortunately, he doesn't have a sidekick like Martin Lawrence to take up the slack in this occasionally exciting but largely superficial sci-fi saga. Not even his quips seem catchy.  Smith spouts lines like: "Does believing you're the last sane man on the planet make you crazy? 'Cause if that's the case, maybe I am.”  Probably his best line, and that isn't saying much, is: "Somehow 'I told you so' just doesn't quite say it." "I, Robot" looks cool, if you don't think about some of the gaping plot holes. Wait until you see what Del's secret weapon is. Talk about a cop-out!  If you think about it, Del qualifies as a cyborg.  The villainous robots aren’t intimidating.   Meanwhile, two action sequences, a careening vehicular chase scene in a freeway tunnel and a demolition robot that destroys a mansion with Del in it, stand out from everything else thing.  Despite its plea for tolerance, which was handled better in "Bicentennial Man," "I, Robot" breaks no new ground in the robot genre.