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Robot Without a Cause

Isaac Asimov gets an update in "I, Robot."


"I, Robot" summarizes Isaac Asimov's short-story collection into an action thriller. It begins with a quick introduction stating the author's three laws of robotics — in short, robots must do everything we say and never harm us. These laws were meant to be broken, a phrase Smith's character is required to deliver by the laws of Hollywood predictability.

As Detective Del Spooner, Smith is a hard-as-nails cross between Shaft and Sam Spade. His supporting cast of clanging humanoids are selfless and unflagging laborers. None has ever so much as jaywalked, but Smith eyes them with a degree of xenophobic suspicion once reserved for the Japanese. He's convinced it's only a matter of time before they start stealing purses and shortly thereafter annihilate humanity.

A tough-talking gumshoe in a black-leather trench, Spooner swaggers around a nameless future city that's alternately polished and gloomy. Computer generated to show off both gleaming towers and murky back alleys, the moody decor supports a kind of mordant dialogue popular in films more than a half century ago. There are brief moments when we are watching the best sci-fi in years.

The interplay may hash out like the Fresh Prince wandering into "The Maltese Falcon," but the darkly comic writing is often surprisingly dry and witty. In one scene, Smith fends off a battalion of robots with his futuristic Audi, then crawls out of the wreckage with the familiar robotic phrase "Your door is ajar" chirping in the background. During another chase scene up a steep tower, a robot helpfully points out that Smith and his companions have 2,280 steps to go. Smith's Spooner is a quick draw with his comeback: "Do me a favor," he snarks. "Keep that kind of shit to yourself." I was waiting for our hero to strike a match on a robot's head to light a cigarette.

"I, Robot" manages to be slightly subversive. Does Smith's detective keep commenting on all the ridiculous heights he encounters simply for comic relief, or is it a gag on an overused sci-fi cliché? More obvious are the jabs at current U.S. policies regarding civil liberty abuses. An army of red robots eventually arrives to dismember their peaceful predecessors and suppress the citizenry, all the while sneering with the sinister glee of corporate CEOs cashing in stock options.

Clever is not the same thing as smart, however, and "I, Robot" just can't program itself out of summer thrill-ride mode. The film seems to have invaded the Hollywood archives like a supervirus sucking out quality details from the genre. Smith's attire and car look as if they came from "Minority Report"; the robots are reminiscent of terminators; and the leaders of both the good and the bad 'bots sound like Hal from "2001."

Two writers worked on the project, and maybe that accounts for the lower-hanging one-liners like, "It's a human thing, you wouldn't understand," and "Now it's personal." As a movie about artificial intelligence, this one is ultimately more artificial than intelligent. The special effects are mind-blowing, but mind-blowing is the status quo these days. You can't just stick a famous face on top and expect it to be enough. **1/2 S

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