Cinema Signal:

I, Robot
The Robots of Dawn
Robot Visions
by Isaac Asimov

Selected Stories of
Philip K. Dick

Works that were the basis of "Blade Runner", "Screamers", "Total Recall", Minority Report" and "Paycheck."

. "I, Robot"

Isaac Asimov was a notable scientist in the field of quantum mechanics and is considered one of the fathers of robotics. What a foundation for a science fiction author of 407 books. When he describes the use of an electron pump, as he does in "The Gods Themselves," you can be sure he knows what he's talking about. And, when he creates a story about robots, he brings significant credibility to their development, as far-fetched as the vision seems to take him.

Detective Del Spooner (Will Smith) is a luddite in the year 2035 when robots as messengers and household helpers are as much a part of every home and office as computers and cell phones are today. He's a retrograde rebel, a man who seems to have a complete distrust of anything mechanical. But give him a pair of vintage Converse sneakers and he's walking on clouds. The irony is that this techo-phobe is the close friend and ally of Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), the inventor of these robots. When Lanning turns up dead, the victim of an apparent suicide, he's sent by his boss, Lt. John Bergin (Chi McBride) to get over his suspicious nature and investigate what everyone is assuming is a suicide.

After a confrontation with Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood), the CEO of U.S. Robotics, the company that seems to have cornered the robot market and which is releasing the latest, improved model, he goes against the common wisdom. He's convinced that Lanning was murdered and, quite possibly by a rogue robot. To Spooner, they're all roguish, despite the fact that their inventor, Lanning, insisted on a 3-part code of ethics (for the programmers) to protect mankind from what untamed artificial intelligence might lead to. Hal, for example, in Stanley Kubrick's "2002."

The best part of his investigation is in the meet up with Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan, "Coyote Ugly", "The Recruit", a 34 year old New Yorker who hasn't exactly hit a path to stardom but provides all the necessary chemistry here) his appointed guide and Lannings ex-assistant. She introduces Spooner to the underlying technology of the corporation, a master operating system that appears in a cubist form with a humanoid face, called V.I.K.I. (Fiona Hogan). Not much can happen around here without V.I.K.I.

To Susan, the detective's suspicions of murder are completely unfounded, but that conviction loses traction when he uncovers a new model robot hiding in Lanning's lab. Springing up from concealment, it immediately exhibits a devious depth of understanding, superhuman strength and acrobatic ability -- making it an overpowering adversary. Spooner figures this nasty, smooth talking renegade machine, later identified as Sonny (Alan Tudyk), is what killed Lanning, but under whose order and for whose gain?

Director Alex Proyas, the creator of my favorite sci-fi movie, "Dark City," repeats his masterful way with effects and delivers seamless futuristic reality but with a limited set of futuristic possibilities. Where "Dark City" was inspired, this feels like loads of money was thrown into a formulaic machine.

His casting of Will Smith to ensure favorable audience contact with this actor's special brand of satiric cockiness and magnetic personality ("Independence Day"), was equally canny. The concept of a technological throwback successfully troubleshooting an uncontrollable advanced intelligence is clever. But this script limits Smith to a narrow portion of his expressive spectrum -- affecting the film's balance between its positive elements and the villainous circuitry of the machines. Instead, we get an equation that never achieves equilibrium, let alone a final feeling of hope or vindication. The vision seems to want us to be defeated or, at least, feel defeatable.

With screenwriter Jeff Vintar's adaptation of Asimov's "I, Robot," Proyas' smugly superior robotic creation proves to be the leading edge of a wild insurgency of machines with a control program that decides it's rescuing mankind by conquering it. The attempt at the end to rehabilitate robotic Sonny's character fails to overcome a multi-villain axis of evil and a pulpy vision that feels machine-hacked -- a promising payload squandered. A movie with considerable visual achievement and dramatic potential unfortunately condemns itself to the scrapheap of brilliant miscalculations.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan and Sonny

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