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Bot and Sold

Will Smith is out-acted by the robot in 'I, Robot'

By Richard von Busack

IN Blade Runner, the humans are so burned out that you need a psychological test to tell them from the "skin jobs." I, Robot, with a script co-written by the ineffable Akiva Goldsman (Batman and Robin, Lost in Space) shows humanity even less warmblooded than Blade Runner's sorrow-numbed cast. We figure that Chicago homicide detective Del Spooner (Will Smith) must be a human because he eats stuff. He gorges on sweet potato pie, and ladles sugar into his coffee. That's about it for characterization. Why does he seem so less human than the robots he loathes? He exhibits some heavily underscored quirks—he prefers the gadgets of the past and shows contempt for robots. He particularly hates a murder suspect, the emotional robot "Sonny" (Alan Tudyk did the voice), whom the detective suspects of murdering its creator (James Cromwell).

Director Alex Proyas (The Crow, Dark City) hasn't made a film that was so free of mood before. I, Robot takes place in a bright, scrubbed 2035. Humanity has fully embraced the machine without second thoughts. The pleasurable part of I, Robot is watching a street scene in which robots mingle with humans. Trying to avoid the skim-milk-colored backgrounds of heavily computer-animated films, Proyas gives I, Robot a sharp, prettified look, with fleecy clouds and turquoise skies. What seems to survive from Isaac Asimov's original stories is the laws of robotics and how these laws could backfire: a nugget of cleverness in the stale popcorn.

Custom suggests that everyone would have a different way of dealing with this ultimate machine. No one personalizes the robots with T-shirts or stickers; none of the machines sports a little bit of duct tape. The fact that the NS5 robots are distributed by U.S. Robotics in the city streets makes the situation all the harder to figure: U.S. Robotics seems to be something between a public utility and a forced shopping spree.

Against this terminally vague background, the show is stolen by the brooding "Sonny" with his gentle eyes and translucent off-white plastic skin, like the shell of an iMac. He does look smarter and more sensitive than the rest of the cast. When he mulls over the importance of the wink in human facial expressions, it's a fine reference to Brigitte Helm's robot Maria in Metropolis and the instant when she tipped Dr. Rotwang a long, slow wink.

Bridget Moynahan plays cybernetics expert Dr. Susan Calvin, apparently a latent robot. Cyborg or human, Smith doesn't seem to care for Calvin much. Will Smith—so truculent, so bored, so handicapped by the would-be jokes (a sample, to a stray cat: "Forget it. I'm black. You're a cat. It would never work.") The least-involved movie star this side of Ben Affleck rolls his futuristic Audi through drab subterranean car-crash scenes and shoots robots to the point of repetitive stress disorder. At the end, Spooner saves the world with the ritual shoving of the deadly what's-it into the core of the glowing machine. Traditionalists will miss the computer voice intoning "Four seconds to self-destruct."

I, Robot (PG-13; 115 min.), directed by Alex Proyas, written by Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman, based on stories by Isaac Asimov, photographed by Simon Duggan and starring Will Smith, Alan Tudyk and Bridget Moynahan, plays valleywide.

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From the July 21-27, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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