A few dents in Smith's 'Robot'

By Roger Moore

The Orlando Sentinel

Isaac Asimov has been pretty much erased from “I, Robot,” the big summer action movie based on his 1950s writings about robots, ethics and morality. But his “Three Laws of Robotics” remain. And that's enough to give the film, essentially a formula cop thriller with Blade Runner pretensions, a cerebral edge it would have lacked and a thoughtful bent not often seen in summer cinema.

The “three laws” are:

1.) “A robot may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”

2.) “A robot must obey the orders given to it by the 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 the First or Second Law.”

They make a pretty good robot ethos, and a decent jumping-off point for a thriller about a machine-made future with a touch of “The Planet of the Apes” Darwinism.

Thirty-plus years in the future, robots have taken over much of the menial work in America. These C-3PO look-and-sound-alikes are walking our dogs, serving us drinks and making life better in a sunny future.

And Detective Del Spooner, played by Will Smith, is just sitting and sulking in his retro apartment, waiting for one of them to go wrong.

“I, Robot” begins with a crime. The master-inventor for US Robotics (James Cromwell) has fallen out a window. Detective Spooner sees a murder, not a suicide. He stumbles across a new model robot that the good doctor was working on and thinks he's nabbed his suspect.

But the more he and we get to know Sonny (voiced by the guy who thought he was a pirate in “Dodgeball”), the deeper the mystery. Sonny is evidence of the “ghost in the machine,” the unanticipated consequences of a technology that seems to suggest that robots are evolving. Sonny is dreaming. And he appears to have a temper. Robots don't dream. And they don't have tempers.

US Robotics is able to suppress news of this “industrial accident.” Bruce Greenwood plays the monopolist boss whose motives are profits and profits only. His robots are “three laws safe,” the advertising says.

Besides, a new model robot is about to roll out, moving in with one of every five humans in America. Dr. Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) shadows Spooner and casts aspersions on his machine-phobia – he calls robots “canners,” as in can-openers. But something is going on, and Sonny is just the warning shot.

The cop cliches come fast and furious, as Chi McBride, the obligatory burly chief detective, chews out his rogue cop for his paranoia. There's the punk kid the cop wants to protect, the kindly grandma who signs up for a new robot, the dark secret in Spooner's past, and that “sinking feeling” that the loner Spooner is the only one who sees the truth.

And then the canners hit the fan.

Smith is still too reliant on a few of his trademark expressions and joke poses. He's a little too cool to play this paranoid hysteric and Luddite, hating machines with a passion for reasons we know we will learn in the third act. The guy has motives, and Smith lays back too much to suggest them before they're revealed.

Director Alex Proyas (“The Crow”) lets his hand show in the film's sense of foreboding. Spielberg's version of this kind of tale (“Minority Report”) lacked that but had more heart.

The special effects team created a splendid chase and several brawls and shootouts between Spooner and the digital effects robots. They're very “Phantom Menace” creepy.

“Beautiful Mind” Oscar-winner Akiva Goldsman gave the script a polish. But there isn't a lot of emotion here, even if the debate on the nature of robot souls is as interesting now as it was when Asimov was first pondering it.

“I, Robot” doesn't have the soul “Spider-Man 2″ aimed for, the intellectual immediacy of “The Day After Tomorrow,” the action of a “Troy” or the wit or frights of the latest “Harry Potter.” It's pretty smart. But nobody involved should be proud that they've achieved only a middling entertainment. Asimov set the bar much higher.

I, ROBOT

3 stars (out of 5)

Cast: Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, James Cromwell, Alan Tudyk, Bruce Greenwood, Chi McBride.

Director: Alex Proyas.

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Industry rating: PG-13 for intense stylized action and some brief partial nudity.

(c) 2004, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

Visit the Sentinel on the World Wide Web at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/. On America Online, use keyword: OSO.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.