I, Robot (12A)

I am not a robot - I am an extremely funky man!
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The Independent Culture

What a quaint title - I, Robot. After generations of sci-fi androids, cyborgs and replicants, "robot" has a positively archaic ring, evoking rusty bolts and metallic voices that grate like Railtrack announcements. The word itself goes back to 1921 and Karel Capek's futuristic play RUR, while Isaac Asimov's collection of stories I, Robot dates from 1950. Alex Proyas's I, Robot - "suggested by", rather than strictly based on Asimov's book - isn't terribly innovative, let alone memorable, but given how hard it is to find new ideas in mainstream screen sci-fi these days, the film does a creditable job of repackaging standard speculative circuitry under a sleek new blockbuster carapace.

The familiar premise behind I, Robot is the possibility that artificial intelligence might evolve into something comparable to human identity or even soul. It's a shame that Proyas doesn't make much headway with this idea, given his enjoyable pop-visionary fantasy Dark City (1998), which pre-empted the phenomenological imponderables of The Matrix, and was considerably weirder too. The starting point of Proyas's I, Robot is agreeably prosaic: the idea that 30 years hence, robots will be consumer devices as common, disposable and indispensable as mobile phones or laptops. In its first few minutes, the film establishes a future Chicago full of amiably shambling robot workers - bartenders, FedEx couriers, dog walkers. They're everywhere, so mundane they're barely noticed.

Everything changes with the mysterious death of a robotics arch-boffin (James Cromwell, embodied as a 2-D hologram). Could a robot have killed him? Impossible, given Asimov's three carved-in-silicon Laws of Robotics, which stipulate that robots may not harm humans. But investigating cop Spooner (Will Smith) knows better. "Those robots don't do anybody any good," grumbles the self-styled "last sane man on earth," shortly before detachments of alloy-shelled stormtroopers come gunning for him: "Y'know, somehow 'I told you so' doesn't quite say it."

Like many a CGI blockbuster, this immaculately designed, sleekly crafted entertainment is proud to flaunt its entirely machine-generated nature (story-writer Jeff Vintar even sounds as though he might be half-man, half-software package). Given this, Will Smith's role is to introduce the irrepressibly warm human factor, to liven up what might otherwise be a chilly dystopia. But his strictly standard no-bullshit-maverick-cop-on-the-edge is nothing more than the usual swaggering, joking Smith persona given free rein (as executive producer, he presumably had carte blanche to indulge himself). Spooner doesn't have character traits so much as a kit of funky-whimsical paraphernalia, like a doting grandma who bakes him sweet potato pies and a yen for vintage Converse sneakers (product placement so shameless it's almost charming). Smith's ostensibly off-the-cuff style is meant to embody the free-play of the human spirit, yet it feels more automatic than anything else in the film, and rides roughshod over the narrative logic. Compare Blade Runner (one of the film's main templates), where Harrison Ford's taciturn vacancy provided the story with a cold, keen focus.

Smith may be miscast, but his presence gives the film a curious ethnic and anachronistic spin: rather than a strictly futuristic vision, I, Robot virtually becomes a comedy about a present-day black man transplanted to a future world of tight-ass white people and, indeed, white robots. The old generation of charmingly creaky, metallic robots are to be supplanted by the state-of-the-art NS-5 version, with their pearly shells and suavely European voices. It's no surprise that new-generation model "Sonny", who becomes Spooner's chief suspect, speaks in effete, quasi-English tones, between R2D2 and Niles Crane.

There are darker themes: the scene where the all-powerful US Robotics sends in armies of new robots to replace the old suggests a nightmare image of ethnic cleansing at the hands of a white-supremacist corporation. The film's most poetic sequence (and one suspects that Proyas would have made more of it, if not for the move-on-swiftly prerogatives of the action pic) has Spooner visiting a storage site for decommissioned robots, where old models peer out of metal containers like boxcar hobos in a Depression-era shanty camp.

I, Robot contains some spectacular images, notably a hunt through static ranks of hundreds of identical CS-5s, but what impresses most, as far as the digitals are concerned, is the subtler creations of John Nelson's visual effects team. The voice and facial movements of actor Alan Tudyk - who "plays" the digital Sonny much as Andy Serkis played Gollum in The Lord of the Rings - give this delicate creation a subtly laconic expressiveness that conveys more with a tensed eyebrow than Smith does in the entire film. It's the texture of Sonny that's most extraordinary: his skin is fabric-like on the inside, with the opalescent finish of a Macintosh iBook, and delicate little gears and levers visible underneath.

I Robot doesn't imagine a conceptually challenging future nearly as thoroughly as Minority Report, with which it shares its predominant blue-steel palette; and like that film, what insights it delivers are overpowered by routinely eye-popping and gravitationally impossible action sequences. Like most recent mainstream sci-fi, it doesn't imagine a future so much as elements of future style, elegantly conceived in Patrick Tatopoulos's production design: "security strips" of blue light instead of surveillance cameras, monumentalist architecture, a mainframe supercomputer called VIKI - presumably a niece of 2001's HAL - with disembodied features that uncannily resemble Victoria Beckham.

Proyas has produced a super-sheened but impersonal blockbuster, when his Dark City led you to hope for something more eccentric. It's telling, though, that when Sonny grabs a pencil and does a lightning sketch of a vision he's had, the result looks like a vintage piece of 1950s sci-fi magazine cover art. That this later becomes I, Robot's final image - and a haunting one, at that - suggests less a dream of future days than a nostalgia for a time when cinema was still confident that there were new futures to dream.