Popular as this topic has always been, it wasn't until the atomic-age explosion of science fiction that it saw its fullest exploitation, with Isaac Asimov's 1950 short story anthology "I, Robot" eventually emerging as the definitive work on the subject. The new Alex Proyas-directed "I, Robot" claims only to have been "suggested by" Asimov's book, which is to say that it borrows just two characters--Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) and Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell)--along with Asimov's famed "Three Laws of Robotics," and wraps them around a semi-original story that bears only a passing resemblance to Asimov's ninth and final "I, Robot" tale, "The Evitable Conflict."
Set in Chicago in the year 2035, "I, Robot" depicts a world in which anthropomorphic robots have become as commonplace as wristwatches, and at least 10 times as indispensable, freeing mankind of the routine chores and assignments on which previous generations wasted precious waking hours. One man, however, isn't so enthralled by the advent of sentient automation--detective Del Spooner (Will Smith), a quasi-Luddite who has yet to be convinced there isn't some nefarious backdoor to the three laws that presumably prevent robots from doing harm to humans. When Dr. Lanning, the original inventor of the robots, dies under suspicious circumstances, Spooner is convinced that his deepest fears are finally being realized. But even Spooner's worst nightmares could not have prepared him for the looming robot rebellion--the only question being who, or what, is behind it? Is it Lanning's Microsoftian employer, U.S. Robotics, and its Murdochian leader, Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood)? Or does it have something to do with a rogue robot named Sonny (voiced by Alan Tudyk)?
Audiences expecting a standard-issue Will Smith action flick will get their share of high-octane thrills and eye-popping effects, but not without an unexpected dose of thoughtful, existential philosophizing. Refreshingly intelligent for its genre, "I, Robot" is easily this summer's most welcome big-budget surprise, a studio film that isn't afraid to ask its audience to think.
That's not to say that "I, Robot" is in any way revolutionary. If anything, it's intensely derivative, though the filmmakers have clearly chosen the right films to pillage. Just about every major picture that ever flirted with the subject of robots (or cyborgs) run amok is, in some way, represented. But Proyas doesn't seem to be afraid of the comparisons, in some cases even welcoming them. "2001: A Space Odyssey," "A.I. Artificial Intelligence," "Minority Report," "Blade Runner," "Robocop," "The Matrix" and "The Terminator" all get either a sly wink or a friendly nod. In voicing Sonny, "Dodgeball" star Tudyk has clearly been directed to sound exactly like Canadian actor Douglas Rain, who voiced the HAL 9000 computer in both "2001" and its 1984 sequel, "2010." Impressively, it all manages to hold together, with Smith's winning charisma and stern believability doing wonders to minimize some initial clumsiness and bring the picture's commercial and intellectual sensibilities into perfect harmony. Starring Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, Bruce Greenwood, James Cromwell, Chi McBride and Alan Tudyk. Directed by Alex Proyas. Written by Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman. Produced by Laurence Mark, John Davis, Topher Dow and Wyck Godfrey. A Fox release. Science Fiction/Thriller. Rated PG-13 for intense stylized action and some brief partial nudity. Running time: 115 min