Digital man meets digital film

Isaac Asimov's `I, Robot' takes an FX-laden look at the problematic relationship of man and machine


Fri, Jul 30, 2004 - Page 20

When robots finally take over the world (assuming they haven't already) we will not be able to say we weren't warned. Every year, Hollywood studios present dire scenarios in which androids, computers and artificial-intelligence applications run amok and enslave the human race, but the public never seems to get the message. Perhaps I, Robot, a hectic, half-baked science-fiction thriller that opens today nationwide, will succeed where the Terminator and Matrix movies failed, and alert us to the grave danger that our innocent-looking toasters, vacuum cleaners, smart cars and laptop computers really pose.

At the same time, I, Robot, directed by Alex Proyas and "suggested by" Isaac Asimov's 1950 book of short stories, may inspire some tenderness toward the technological doodads that run our lives. This is because, like other movies in this dystopian vein (including Blade Runner and A.I.), it proposes that machines have feelings, too. The robots in this familiar future (the movie takes place in Chicago in 2035) have not only the intelligence necessary to turn against their human creators but also the capacity to dream, to love and to suffer.

At the screening I attended, cellphones and laptops were confiscated at the door. Supposedly, this was to prevent piracy, but I'm not so sure. Maybe 20th Century Fox wanted to make sure those clever gadgets didn't get any ideas, or maybe the studio just wanted to protect their feelings.

Del Spooner, a brooding, wise-cracking homicide detective played with weary action-hero bravado by Will Smith, shows no such sensitivity. He is, in fact, a raging anti-robot bigot, harboring a grudge against the helpful, polite machines that shuffle around the city running errands and doing menial work. Early in the movie, he chases down a robot he mistakenly believes has stolen a woman's purse, only to discover that he has been guilty of technological profiling. He is repeatedly scolded for his prejudice -- by his grandmother (Adrian Ricard), by his boss (Chi McBride) and by the sinister head of the top robot-producing corporation (Bruce Greenwood) -- which gives the movie an interesting undercurrent of racial irony.

Spooner's attitude also revives some familiar conundrums of sci-fi philosophy, which the script, written by Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman, tackles in lengthy expository scenes. Where is the boundary between the human and the nonhuman? How does the technological blurring of this boundary affect our ethical conceptions of humanity and inhumanity?

These questions are batted around in a series of arguments between Spooner and Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), who meet in the course of Spooner's investigation into the death of a kindly old scientist.

Spooner suspects that the man, a friend of his, was murdered by a robot, a

possibility that seems at once logical and unthinkable, since the company's robots are governed by three laws, the first of which is that they can never harm a human. But the main suspect, a soulful prototype named Sonny (a computer-enhanced special effect voiced by Alan Tudyk), has developed a mind and a will of his own, which makes him a harbinger of apocalyptic danger as well as a friendly sidekick.

"You're the dumbest smart person I've ever met," Spooner says to Dr. Calvin during one of their debates, and I, Robot is one of the smarter dumb movies I've seen in a while. Its vision of the future is a grab-bag of borrowings from other pictures: the evil corporation from Robocop, the urban consumer environment from Minority Report, the sleek and agile killer robots from the last two Terminator movies, the climactic riot from, of all things, Gangs of New York.

A straightforward genre exercise, directed with more competence than inspiration, I, Robot lacks both the intellectual rigor and the soulful sublimity of A.I., but it nonetheless allows some genuine ideas and emotions to pop up amid the noise and clutter. The overwrought ending tries to bring these into some kind of coherence, and the filmmakers deserve some credit for the effort, even though I, Robot makes less sense the more you think about it.

Which, I suppose, is just as silly as taking the film seriously as a cautionary tale. Still, this kind of movie presents a troubling paradox, since it is an example of the very phenomenon it purports to warn against. Dramatizing the threat of runaway technology seems to demand ever greater technological innovation, as digitized special effects increasingly push human beings off screen.

Sonny, with his mournful blue eyes and his smooth features, nearly upstages Smith and Moynahan, and it is possible to foresee a day when his kind will tire of being pushed around by flesh-and-blood actors and directors. They will organize their own guilds, take creative control over their own movies and, eventually, turn their mechanical minds to film criticism. Now I'm scared. I hope it's not too late.