The best speculative fiction considers what it means to be human and I, ROBOT, comes tantalizingly close to rendering that conundrum on screen. Alas, not close enough. The film, which has the honesty to bill itself as merely suggested by the story of the same name by Isaac Asimov, is a pale simulacrum more interested in showing off its special effects than trusting a premise that can potentially set off more intellectual fireworks than all the computer generated ones to be found in its running time. As for one of the original storys premises, the human despair over the perfection achieved by their robot servants, its dismissively relegated to the back story.
Instead, the filmmakers decided to go with brand recognition, not unlike the blatant product placement to be found throughout, and have attempted to make a generic Will Smith film. In this attempt, not only have they botched the story, they also botched the brand. No offense intended towards Mr. Smith, who proved his ability to play a character instead of a personality with SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION. The script is a lackadaisical and choppy thing, more interested in showing off Smiths buff bod (successfully) and his sharp wit (not so successfully). Smith does what he can, but the script gives him lines that are for the most part as flat as day-old uncapped soda. Hes Del Spooner, a Chicago cop living thirty years in the future where robots are the new underclass walking dogs, delivering packages, and collecting garbage. Spooner has a chip on his shoulder about robots, probably due to that nasty recurring nightmare he has about an accident involving one. This attitude smacks of something pernicious, as when he chases down a robot running with a purse just because its running with a purse. Can you say profiling? Never mind that no robot has ever committed a crime because their programming wont permit it. That would be the three laws hard-wired into all of them, never to harm a human, to always obey an order from a human, unless it violates the first law, and to always preserve itself, unless it violates the first two laws.
Naturally, things get hinky with the mechanical men (no gals, btw). It starts getting weird when Spooner gets a phone call to investigate a suicide that might be murder at US Robotics, the sole manufacturer of the worlds robots. Things then get weird when he discovers that the phone call is from the dead guy (James Cromwell in holographic form), the USR genius who created the robots, including a startling prototype that not only has genuine emotions, but that also may or may not have committed the murder.
In between Spooner visiting his grandmother, being chased by marauding hordes of murderous robots, rescuing a cat from the house being demolished over them both, and taking control in increasingly preposterous stand-offs, there are fascinating bits of dialogue speculating about the so-called ghost in the machine. Descartes, who invented the term, was speaking about the duality of mind and body, but here it is defined as those random bits of code that coalesce in the positronic brains of the robots, creating subroutines and, perhaps, a new but distinctly valid kind of consciousness that causes them to group in clusters and drift towards the light for no apparent reason. That brings us to Sonny, the putatively murderous robot and the only one with a name. Strictly CGI, Sonny, with his translucent face showing the mechanical works underneath, wide blue eyes, warm voice (Alan Tudyk), and graceful, birdlike form, he is easily the most human thing in the film. Certainly warmer than Dr. Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) the scientist charged with transitioning human characteristics to robots and Spooners love interest in a subplot that fizzles before it can take off. Or the head of USR (Bruce Greenwood), who is as steely as any of his creations as he surveys the world he all but owns from the top floor of his soaring anglerfish of a skyscraper Sonny, by contrast, has a sense of wonder as he ponders his situation, neither living nor not quite machine, plus a gentle, charmingly tentative need for affection from those around him.
I, ROBOT does create a fascinating world, albeit one with a color scheme that never strays far from metallic blacks and grays. But it falls into the trap of letting its special effects move the story, instead of the other way around. Seeing an army of robots in silvery lock-step whether marching out of their packing crates or menacingly down a street, is great in a nicely creepy, overwhelming way. Throwing in a car chase, especially in a world where driving has become completely automated and monitored, is just silly on top of being distracting. It also never deviates from a whispered, thudding tone instead of one that builds tension as it presents us with convenient plot holes and odd details that never quite pay off. The Hansel and Gretel references, for example, seem shoe-horned in. Its all emblematic of why this film is so frustrating to watch. I, ROBOT blew its chance for greatness, first by straying from an infinitely intriguing question about what makes us human and then by not just going the summer effects blockbuster route, but failing there, too.