Fresh Prince, evil robots face off in future flick

by John Kim | 7/20/04 5:00am

When one reflects on the quality of Will Smith's recent work, the skepticism surrounding "I, Robot" becomes understandable. However, there is a world of difference between directors such as Michael Bay and those like Alex Proyas, mainly in that the former suck and the latter don't. Proyas is a talented director who has earned the benefit of the doubt, and his attachment to this project was cause for hope that the film would be more like "T2" and less like "Wild Wild West."

"I, Robot" takes place in a world where robots are no longer a thing of the future and in fact have become fully integrated into society. Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), the founder of modern robotics, decides one day to jump out of his window to his death, and everyone is quick to treat it as a suicide. Detective Del Spooner (Will Smith), though, is not so willing. Driven by his deep-seated prejudices, he continues to investigate Lanning's death even as others question his sanity, and eventually, with the reluctant help of Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), he uncovers a sinister plot that puts the very existence of humankind in jeopardy.

Admittedly, I have no familiarity with the Isaac Asimov story from which the movie gets its name. However, it is a moot point; the producers of the film have stressed that the movie is only "suggested" by Asimov's work, meaning that it is probably as true to the book as "West Side Story" is to gang life in New York City.

This is not necessarily a problem; adaptations deserve to be judged on their own merits and not on how closely they follow the source material. Yet even with this in mind, "I, Robot" fails to live up to its promise. It introduces some fascinating ideas about what defines humanity, but ultimately it fails to expound on these themes and settles for being a run-of-the-mill "evil robot" flick.

"I, Robot," if nothing else, looks amazing. Proyas is a director of unique vision, and this film exudes atmosphere in every single frame.

It's too bad, then, that screenwriter Akiva Goldsman stifles Proyas' vision with his frustratingly predictable script. Goldsman has never met a trite plot device he didn't like, and he even includes a scene in which Chi McBride's lieutenant character demands that his unruly subordinate "turn in his badge." The only way Goldsman could have been more clich is if the lieutenant referred to Spooner as a "loose cannon" afterwards.

Really, it's my fault for thinking that the same man responsible for the legendary crapfest that was "Batman and Robin" would actually deliver a decent script. As George W. Bush once said, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me -- you can't get fooled again!"

Will Smith tries his best to make Goldsman's awkward dialogue work, and to his credit, he is somewhat successful. Indeed, for all the flack he receives, Smith can be rather charismatic when given the right role. "I, Robot" is not going to jumpstart his career, mind you, but particularly in his scenes with Moynahan, we do see traces of the Fresh Prince charm reemerge.

"I, Robot" is a fine popcorn film that blows things up real good and actually has signs of intelligence in between the explosions. However, I can't help but be disappointed. Sure, the film is an upgrade from what is usually released this time of year. Considering the pedigree of those involved, though, that just doesn't seem good enough.