Once, long ago, it might have been strangely enticing, or even a threat, to think that a robot or a computer could have feelings. Who now, though, would expect them not to? Consider the innocently diabolical HAL in ”2001: A Space Odyssey,” with his voice of wounded insolence, or that twee butler of a droid C-3PO in the ”Star Wars” films, or Rutger Hauer’s homicidal yet tragic replicant in ”Blade Runner,” or Peter Weller’s RoboCop, a half-wrecked alloy of a man haunted by video flashbacks. Or take all of Steven Spielberg’s ”A.I.” — please. It would be hard to name a major science-fiction film of the last few decades in which the ghosts of artificial intelligence didn’t at least flirt with taking over the machine. So when Del Spooner (Will Smith), the future-world detective of I, Robot, suspects that a robot has committed murder, the corporate technocrats of 2035 Chicago think that he’s a troublemaker with a tendency toward high paranoia, but the audience is already three steps ahead of him.
In the amusing early scenes of ”I, Robot,” metal droids that look like wide-awake crash-test dummies are treated as immigrant labor. They walk dogs and pick up the garbage, and they gallop through the morning rush hour of Chicago, a teeming megalopolis that doesn’t look so different from the way it does today except for a few additional skyscrapers, fancier locks on the doors, and an underground highway system in which burnished vehicles zip along as if flying on a current of air. The robots exist according to three laws that have been hardwired into their systems: They can never harm a human; they must follow every human order, so long as it doesn’t require them to break law one; and they must protect their own existence (without breaking laws one or two). But the wizards at U.S. Robotics, whose thrusting fascist headquarters dwarfs the skyline, are about to unveil an advanced new generation of robots: the NS-5 series, whose spooky anthropomorphic design makes the earlier humanoid machines look like tin cans.
Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), the genius who pioneered robot technology and invented the three laws, has plunged to his death in what appears to be a suicide. At least, it does to everyone but Smith’s Detective Spooner. When Spooner examines the lab that Lanning jumped (or was pushed) from, out of the shadows leaps one of the new NS-5s, which then makes its escape. The robot’s name is Sonny, and he’s an elegant assemblage of black-cable legs, a torso that looks like it was fashioned out of a discarded iMac, and a face of white-gray polysynthetic skin that changes expression with imperceptible ease.
Physically, Sonny is identical to the other NS-5s, except that there’s an authentic play of personality upon his finely angled nose and thin lips, the sad blue gems that are his eyes. His voice is supplied by Alan Tudyk (who was also the model for the character’s physiognomy), and the actor speaks in a vaguely British, disarmingly calm and cultivated singsong that makes him sound like the love child of HAL and Julie Andrews. Sonny is easily the most charming thing in ”I, Robot,” yet for all the supposed amazement of his expressions, he still looks like a talking mask shot with Botox, and he’s not all that vividly written a character. No one in the movie is. ”Suggested” by Isaac Asimov’s book of interlinked stories, ”I, Robot” isn’t badly directed (by ”Dark City”’s Alex Proyas), and it has some nifty choreographed scenes of leaping malevolent droids on the attack. The movie, however, while tarted up with holograms and steel-on-obsidian decor touches lifted from ”Minority Report” and ”RoboCop,” has been banged together out of far too many standard-issue parts. A routine Will Smith cop-on-the-hunt thriller at heart, ”I, Robot” lacks imaginative excitement.
How do we know that Spooner doesn’t like or trust robots? Because he declares his badass contempt for them in nearly every scene. A furious Luddite who wears Converse All Stars and still blasts Stevie Wonder from his archaic stereo, the character has his conspiracy antennae out so far that the only suspenseful question in the film is, How did a robot get around the three laws? Will Smith does his slow-burn renegade number, yet by the time he talks tough to a kitty cat, I began to notice that Smith interacts with everyone on screen — boss, robot, corporate enemy, that cat — in exactly the same way. The irony of a robot who is just as human as the people around him may not mean that much when even a movie’s hero is spewing his attitude on autopilot.