Maybe it's not on the order of the merry havoc wreaked on Homer by "Troy" and classic chivalric legends by "King Arthur," but for fans of classic science fiction, Alex Proyas's new film version of "I, Robot" may still be cause for the rending of garments. Isaac Asimov's pioneering 1950 collection of short stories -- tricky little devils, with all sorts of ethical conundrums tucked under their witty sci-fi surface -- has been remixed and remodeled into a stylish, watchable, very familiar future-cop action thriller. What was once original is now almost completely derivative.
Will Smith, all buffed up and toying with a noir cynicism that doesn't entirely fit him, plays Del Spooner, a Chicago cop in the year 2035, when humanoid domestic robots have become as commonplace as automobiles (the cars, meanwhile, have morphed into sleek silver dune buggies all apparently made by Audi).
Del is an old-school guy -- he wears vintage 2004 Converse All-Stars -- who hates robots and is convinced they're a menace waiting to strike back at their human masters. If he weren't right, there wouldn't be a movie, but for the time being everyone scoffs at him, especially his chief (Chi McBride). Doesn't Del know the Three Laws of Robotics that are burned into every robot's positronic brain? And into every sci-fi fan's brain, too -- say it with me, now: (1) A robot may not allow a human being to come to harm. (2) A robot must obey human orders except where those orders conflict with the first law. (3) A robot must protect its own existence except where that conflicts with the first and second laws.
That's about all of Asimov that made it into this movie. Well, Susan Calvin is here, too: the scientist who in youth and old age plays a thoughtfully provocative role in many of the original "I, Robot" stories. Now she's played by Bridget Moynahan, and by movie's end she's cradling a machine gun and dangling from a ladder over a bottomless pit. At least Tom Brady will have a good time.
Del is called in to investigate the apparent suicide of Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), the aging genius and founder of US Robotics, a company whose shark-fin skyscraper dominates the city and which is on the verge of launching the latest robot: the Nestor-5. The detective and Dr. Calvin discover a rogue NS-5 who seems to have been programmed without the Three Laws. In their place, it appears to have . . . a soul.
This robot -- who calls himself Sonny -- is visually and conceptually a breathtaking piece of work and the only novel aspect of "I, Robot." Skeletal yet fluid, with piercing blue eyes and a translucent skin that slyly suggest an iMac after three decades of upgrades, Sonny has a childlike curiosity about his own metaphysics that immediately puts the audience, if not Del, on his side. "I have even had dreams," he tells the detective wonderingly -- and then draws one of them as though he were a particularly inspired dot-matrix printer. Actor Alan Tudyk provides the face-template and voice for Sonny, and it's to his credit the robot seems more alive than the nominal stars.
When Sonny is offscreen, "I, Robot" sags into formula: chases, shootouts, a dastardly corporate executive (Bruce Greenwood), a conspiracy to dominate the earth. In truth, it's a perfectly OK summer bloat-o-rama, the sort of multiplex-buster that depends more on editing and production design than on story line. And Proyas and his team make good on the visuals, with the endless rows of NS-5s nightmarishly recalling Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will."
But there's the rub. Except for Sonny, "I, Robot" the movie fears robots and primarily exists to exploit their creepazoid potential. That's 180 degrees away from Asimov, who liked the idea of robots and, even more, the ethical challenges they presented to mankind. I do believe I hear rolling down at the graveyard.
To be fair, the new "Robot" has merely been "suggested by" the book, and that, I guess, gives Proyas and writers Jeff Wintar and Akiva Goldsman license to turn the material into a ballet if they want. But if they had really wanted to pursue truth in advertising, the credits would read "also suggested by `Minority Report,' `The Matrix,' `Blade Runner,' `Tron,' `AI: Artifical Intelligence,' and `2001: A Space Odyssey.' "
The crowning irony is that each one of those movies owes much of its DNA to Isaac Asimov.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Directed by: Alex Proyas
Written by: Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman, suggested by the book by Isaac Asimov. Starring: Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, Bruce Greenwood, Alan Tudyk
At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs
Running time: 115 minutes
Rated: PG-13 (intense stylized action, brief partial nudity)