The mechanical heart of I, Robot.

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July 15 2004 8:54 PM

RoboFlop

The mechanical heart of I, Robot.

Smith among bots
Smith among bots

Over the last 50 years, the late Isaac Asimov's "robot visions" have percolated through every layer of science fiction: They're not only the foundation of other peoples' sci-fi novels (and trilogies, and quintilogies, and octilogies), they're evident in every Star Trek retread and many Saturday morning cartoons. The megabudget I, Robot (20th Century Fox) is probably one of the less Asimovian things I've seen recently, despite beginning with Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics. ("1. A robot may not injure a human being etc. … 2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except when etc. … 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as etc. …") Watching the movie, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out why such an accomplished, fast-paced, generally tasteful sci-fi-thriller-mystery with such classic sci-fi tropes and no obvious howlers struck me as so ring-a-ding dull.

There is no single answer to this question, but the experience did lead me to devise what I call the Three Laws of Robotic Movies:

1. A director must respect the laws of space, time, and motion, except where the flouting of said laws of space, time, and motion is the whole point, which it isn't when you're trying to make the action look realistic even though it's all been manufactured inside a fucking computer.

2. A director may not attempt to conceal his or her witless clunkery with respect to staging, shooting, and editing action scenes behind the aforementioned impossible-looking, cartoony, egregiously computer-generated high speeds.

3. A director must not make feature motion pictures designed to be seen on large screens exclusively for an audience of adolescent gamers whose fight-or-flight reflexes have developed in inverse proportion to their higher cognitive functions.

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The director of I, Robot, Alex Proyas, systematically violates my three laws and throws in a couple of extra infractions, which I can't mention without violating the Three Laws of Spoiler Nondisclosure. (Trust me, the guy cheats like mad.) There are people who regard Proyas' Dark City as a masterpiece for the ages—I believe Roger Ebert holds seminars in which he goes through the movie frame by frame for something like two years with breaks only for Yom Kippur and Lent. To me, Dark City felt like the first Matrix without the kung fu, but it did have a nice, Philip K. Dickian is-it-real-or-am-I-reading-a-Philip-K.-Dick-novel eeriness and some good hats.

The movie of I, Robot is set in Chicago of 2035, where every fifth person appears to be a robot. These are not your father's futuristic movie robots; they look more like beatific movie extraterrestrials, with oval heads and a tension between stiff-jointedness and plant-like litheness. Being computer-generated, these robots move with impossible swiftness and fluidity, which takes a lot of the fun out of watching robots, if you ask me. (Who could have predicted that the natural enemy of movie robots would turn out to be computers?)

Will Smith plays a homicide detective who hates, I mean hates, robots, as well as all other things 2035-ish, to the point of wearing sneakers that you and I can buy in stores today (I'd name them for a small fraction of what the studio was paid to put them in the film) and listening to familiar 20th-century pop-rock standards—which must have made things easier for the guy putting together the soundtrack compilation. The Three Laws guarantee that a robot can't possibly harm a human being on purpose, but Smith has it in his head they can, for reasons I can't reveal without violating the aforesaid Spoiler Laws. When the scientist (James Cromwell, as a hologram) who wrote the three Robot Laws winds up splattered all over the lobby of the corporation that builds all the machines, Smith smells a robotic rat.

The movie's palette is a numbing gray, black, white, beige, and silver, and there's almost no one in it except the homogenized Smith, retrofitted with custom action-hero one-liners; the computer-generated robots; and a scientist played by Bridget Moynahan, whose starched cheekbones and near-monotonic readings had me convinced that she'd turn out to be a machine, too. Alas, she's just another assembly-line starlet with swollen lips and no discernible life force. There is also a street urchin who is introduced in the first few minutes so that he and his street-urchin pals can come back for a climactic, Gangs of New York-style face-off with the computer-generated robots. (It makes the climax of Gangs of New York seem well set-up.)

If I weren't observing the Spoiler Laws I'd tell you about the more evolved, perhaps even friendly robot, whose dreams, fears, and emotions prompt the question, "When does a perceptual schematic become consciousness?" Certainly not in the case of this schematic movie: It walks and talks and moves very fast, but it never lives.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.