I, Robot is the type of moderately smart, partially exciting, science fiction movie that always seems to be hanging around. It’s not all that special, it’s not exactly worth watching, but it’ll pass the time just fine and it has some ideas that are worth listening to. In fact, those ideas are far more interesting than any of the CGI-filled action sequences that are scattered throughout. I would have liked to see more of the mystery, more of the intrigue, and more the intelligence.
The film begins by giving us three rules, laid out initially by Isaac Asimov, whose work is given a “suggested by” credit. Law 1: They must never harm a human being or through inaction, allow any harm to come to a human. Law 2: They must obey the orders given to them by human beings, except where such orders violate the First Law. Law 3: They must protect their own existence unless this violates the First or Second Laws. Who are the “they”? Robots, of course, as you probably deduced from the title. This is a futuristic world where robots are commonplace in day to day life, and who are governed by these three laws in order to ensure that humans are never harmed, and that they are obeyed without question.
The lead is Del Spooner (Will Smith), a detective who hates the robots because, at one point, they put his father out of a job. And they also invade his dreams, presumably because some incident — to be revealed later, of course — involved them doing something that he didn’t like. He sees one running down the road, holding a purse, he chases it, even though it was doing its owner a favor; it can’t disobey or cause harm to a human, remember? He risks losing his job because of his unwarranted prejudice, because it seems irrational and possibly the beginning of a mental disorder.
He gets a job after being requested to look at a potential suicide of his good friend, the inventor and innovator of many of the robots walking the streets, Dr. Lanning (James Cromwell). It’s initially ruled a suicide — he jumped to his death from a room looked from the inside, but Spooner isn’t so certain. Before you know it, a rogue robot jumps out of a heap of scrap metal, fires a couple of shots, and escapes from the building.
Obviously it’s just a malfunction, right? Some faulty wiring caused it to go insane, ignore its three laws, and kill the good doctor? Spooner isn’t so sure that it isn’t part of a bigger picture, so he goes on a little quest that will, eventually, lead to him uncovering something that might be necessary to save the world. Oh, and there will be a bunch of CGI action scenes along the way, because a detective movie set in this universe wouldn’t be good enough.
I think it would be. I think, taking this basic idea, that using a neo-noir style instead of trying to artificially make the film more exciting by throwing in out-of-place action scenes would have been more enjoyable. We already have the detective, who is possibly paranoid and we know is hiding something from the general public, and we have a potential femme fatale in the doctor/psychologist tasked with showing him around the facility, Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan).
Have Spooner uncover clues (which he does), and go through a fairly standard film noir storyline. That would be more exciting, especially when combined with both the technology available, and the universe the film is using as inspiration. Instead, we get a bit of that, but most of the time we’re moving through one action scene to another, with some possible conspiracy put in just to make us wish for a better movie.
The robots do look quite good, especially in the case of Sonny (voice and motion capture provided by Alan Tudyk), whose goal it is to appear the most human. The special effects on the whole are quite enjoyable to look at — especially with how fluidly the robots move, which is exceptional — but I grew tired of them early on. The parts of I, Robot, placed in between them, when the characters are just talking about what a human or robot really is, and whether or robots can have souls — or whatever idea, really, they want to discuss — are far more enjoyable. They at least give you something to think about.
Will Smith is, admittedly, fun to watch in both the talking scenes and the action ones. He’s a charismatic lead, and no matter what he’s doing, you want to watch him. He can deliver long monologues, and he can give us some funny one-liners, too. He’s basically a versatile actor who is always a pleasure to see on-screen. His co-stars aren’t bad, but they fail to light it up like he does. I would still like to see him in a neo-noir.
I, Robot is a fine movie to introduce a couple of interesting ideas and pass the time, but if you want it to expand on what it brings to the table, or if you’d like for it to genuinely excite you, you’ll want to look elsewhere. It has some very impressive looking robots, it has some philosophical questions that will make you think — although not for long because it’ll throw and action scene at you before you can start thinking too hard — and while it’s not great, it’s a fine science fiction film to play in the background or use to waste time on a slow, rainy day.