By Jeff Labrecque
Updated December 14, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST
I, Robot: Ava Gerlitz

War and the economy might be the major issues of our day, but according to the cinematic world, the inevitable crisis of the future will be man versus machine. For every C-3PO, there have been a dozen HALs, Terminators, and Matrixes, and apparently, it’s only a matter of time before my George Foreman grill sucker punches me once and for all. In I, Robot, a loose adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s short stories, Smith plays a Chicago cop in 2035 investigating a mysterious death in which Sonny, a robot, is the prime suspect. Since robots are programmed to protect humans at all costs, the uniquely flawed Sonny might be evidence of a growing robot conspiracy. The script, by Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman, metaphorically pits the forces of the heart and the mind against each other, but Goldsman and director Alex Proyas repeatedly hint at real-life rival forces behind the scenes. Recorded six weeks before the movie hit theaters, their commentary alludes to studio pressure to simplify the plot and add cheap humor. ”We’re at the mercy of a test audience,” Proyas laments. ”We hope we’re allowed to proceed.” It’s unclear who won out. The film is often videogame-violent, and Smith surely represents the hip, fresh action hero that studio suits had in mind. But the story, which references Pinocchio and The Wizard of Oz while flirting with themes like free will and post-9/11 politics, never completely succumbs. Even with implausible action (Smith shoots robots while air-borne on his motorcycle, crashes, gets up, shoots more robots), it’s refreshing when a blockbuster at least tries to be intelligent.