Once again, there’s a movie involving robots in which the robots are far more interesting than the humans. Will Smith is the name above the title in I, Robot, but he’s the star of this movie the way that Mark Hamill was the star of Star Wars. Even the extraordinarily magnetic Fresh Prince just can’t compete when he has to share the screen with a really cute robot.
Sonny is the robot’s name. He’s a machine that understands he’s a machine, and he’s baffled, upset, and fascinated by it all at once. He has somehow transcended his machine-ness, and nobody can quite understand how it’s happened. Sonny is an inspired creation. Half-animated and half-acted by a terrific stage actor named Alan Tudyk in the same way that Gollum in The Lord of the Rings movies was played both by Andy Serkis and a computer program, he’s the only reason to see I, Robot, which opens today in about one billion theaters nationwide.
This movie has to be judged a terrible disappointment, considering that Will Smith can be such fun to watch and that director Alex Proyas made two compelling and incredibly stylish science-fiction movies before this one (The Crow and Dark City). Surprisingly, except for a few mesmerizing shots of an army of robots climbing a building with the dexterity of spiders, I, Robot isn’t all that much to look at. And Smith’s character is little more than a gigantic pain. Smith plays a paranoid and lonely homicide detective in 2035 Chicago, and he gets into lengthy arguments wherever he goes. Watching him yell and stomp around and get nothing done gets pretty old pretty quick, especially since his antagonists are right out of the Hollywood Cliché Manual of Style.
There’s the brilliant but cold lady scientist who is more comfortable with machines than people (a truly ghastly performance by the model Bridget Moynahan). There’s the suave and evil anything-for-a-buck corporate smoothie (played by the terrific Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood). And, of course, there’s the gruff but lovable sergeant who keeps getting into a lather and taking Smith’s badge away. (Chi McBride, who plays the sarge, played almost exactly the same part in last year’s totally hilarious race-relations blaxploitation spoof Undercover Brother, only he was kidding in that one.)
The few scenes that really cook are the ones between Smith and Sonny. “A robot can’t compose a symphony,” Smith says contemptuously, “or take a canvas and turn it into a work of art.”
To which Sonny replies, “Can you?”
He also wants to know why people wink at each other–a question whose answer will come in handy later in the film.
The title, of course, comes from Isaac Asimov, who collected a bunch of short stories under the title I, Robot. The movie has little to do with Asimov aside from its use of his Three Laws of Robotics, designed to protect humans from the possibility of runaway machines killing them and taking over the world. One of the few witty touches in the blathery screenplay by Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman is the way they turn Asimov’s principles into an advertising slogan inside the movie. People who buy robots in the I, Robot movie universe are assured they are “Three Laws Safe.”
Robots have a rich and storied history in movies. The first distinguished science-fiction movie was a 1926 German silent called Metropolis, in which a woman named Maria is replaced by a lewd and sexy mechanical version of herself. (The “false Maria” winks lasciviously, a famous image to which I, Robot pays tribute with its wink.)
In the 1951 disarmament fable, The Day the Earth Stood Still, war-crazed Earthlings are made aware of their foolishness by a robot from outer space named Gort. Two decades later a fascinating little film called Silent Running featured Bruce Dern as a lonely guy on a space station who is kept company by three adorable mechanical helpers he calls Huey, Dewey, and Louie–the clear precursors for C3PO and R2D2 in Star Wars. And in 1981 came the great Blade Runner, the robot movie to end all robot movies, in which the mechanical people achieve a tragic grandeur when they all discover they have only four years to live. This movie contains the greatest line ever spoken by a robot, when Rutger Hauer’s Batty the Replicant beats the tar out of Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard.
“Come on, Deckard,” Batty says. “Show me what you’re made of.”
The great mystery is why robots come off so well in science-fiction films when the human characters are often so astoundingly wooden. The great mystery of I, Robot is why a huge star like Will Smith would allow himself to be upstaged by a special effect like Sonny.